Blood Maidens (Page 11)
‘Apearl ring,’ Ysidro said.
‘A baroque pearl, shaped like a tiny snail-shell, about two-thirds the size of a pea. The band was plain gold—’ Asher reached for his waistcoat pocket, and the vampire made a movement with his long fingers. No need.
‘I gave it to her.’
Silence then. The brocaded curtains, and the double-glazing of the windows, cut out the noise of night traffic on the Moyka Embankment, so that the sitting room, with its tufted red velvet chairs, its prosaic dark furniture, seemed cut adrift from the world. After a moment Asher said, ‘It doesn’t inevitably mean she’s dead.’
‘She has been dead since 1820,’ replied Ysidro calmly. ‘’Tis kind in you to speak words of comfort, if such be your intent,’ he added, raising his head to meet Asher’s eyes. ‘But a man who would study the flesh of vampires would be safest to do so using the twice dead – the truly dead – rather than one who might yet escape and demand an accounting for her missing fingers. And a vampire working in partnership with such a man would never permit a potential rival to come within that man’s orbit. No,’ he said. ‘She is truly dead at last.’
Would he have sighed, Asher wondered, had he breath himself?
Asher recalled the untouched books, the rusted harp-strings. Would he – James Asher – continue to love Lydia if she ceased to study her experimental notes in bed, ceased to read the Lancet as if it were Dickens, ceased to love her friends and take her accustomed delight in the incongruities of the world?
Yes. In the months after the miscarriage of their child, she had laid down all of those things and retreated into some zone of grief as still and colorless as the Neva ice. Through his own grief, he had waited for her, patiently, knowing she must one day emerge. In time she had, as the ice had broken from the river and now was gone.
But I’m not a vampire myself. Nor is she.
‘Did you see the place where the other one – the girl – burned up?’
Asher shook himself sharply free of his thoughts. Wondered how much the vampire had read of them.
‘As Zudanievsky said, it’s an attic on Little Samsonievsky Alley. Only fear of the Okhrana kept the manager from bringing in new tenants before this: there were three families of them waiting in the stairway with their dishes and bedding as we came out. There wasn’t much to see. But I’ll swear no vampire would have taken refuge there. The window is small, but it’s unshuttered and uncurtained. Nobody could think the place wouldn’t be light with the coming of day.’
Ysidro sat with hands folded before his lips, elbows propped on the arms of his chair, before the sitting-room stove.
‘I asked you about fairies, back at the Theosophical Society ball,’ said Asher, as the silence lengthened. ‘Are there other creatures – supernatural or merely rare – who share this . . . this photopyroactivity with your kind?’
‘If they burst into flame with the mere light of day,’ replied the vampire, ‘I should say they would be rare indeed, especially were they not intelligent enough to know to go to ground where it is safe. Yet by the clothing found – the girl’s shoes, the boy’s buttons – these were human beings. And, I should say, probably two of the boys and girls who disappeared.’
‘Is there any possibility – any at all – that this is a spontaneous mutation? That for some reason certain people are . . . are becoming vampires . . .’ He hesitated, hearing the preposterousness of the idea even as he said it.
‘Without masters? In truth, James, I know not. But I have never heard of such, and for three hundred years and more I have studied the nature of our state with great attention. No . . . There have been those – your old friend Blaydon among them – who sought to develop a vampire hybrid who would have the vampire’s powers but none of his weaknesses. Yet who would develop a creature with the weaknesses but none of the strengths?’
‘Benedict Theiss, it looks like,’ murmured Asher. ‘I’ll set Lydia to finding what she can about the man when she gets here. Razumovsky can get her into this Circle of Astral Light that Theiss seems to favor . . . or one of his mistresses can. Behind that innocent air of hers she’s very good at picking out the names of people’s contacts – fitting together who goes where with whom. If I asked Zudanievsky or my friends at the Department to look into him and by some chance the man turns out to be a perfectly innocent soul who only seeks to alleviate the sicknesses of Petersburg’s poor . . .’
‘A man who employs a clerk from the Auswärtiges Amt,’ responded Ysidro drily, ‘is not perfectly innocent. Yet personally, if Theiss and this man Texel find themselves locked up in the Peter and Paul Fortress, I would rather not remain in Petersburg into June trying to find who our interloper next contacts. Theiss at least we know about. This most recent girl who disappeared—’
‘—knew nothing, spoke to no one, and never had a friend outside her family circle, to hear her mother tell it.’ Asher rose from his chair and crossed to the samovar, poured himself tea. The long walk in the rain, coming directly after three days of train journey, had left him feeling fatigued and old. There was no real rest Abroad, and he knew the coming journey would be worse.
‘You should have seen their eyes when I asked them questions. Always checking the expression on Zudanievsky’s face, or glancing at each other: Is this safe to say? What do they want to hear? Will things be better or worse if we tell them that? In England, if you poke your nose around the East End with copper written all over you like a music-hall poster, they’ll play dumb, but they won’t be scared like that. Not scared for their lives.’
‘Inconvenient.’ Ysidro sounded politely bored. He was a Spanish nobleman: the rights of the poor had never interested him as a living man, and he clearly had not the slightest concern about them now that he was dead.
Terrified of their betters is the way the poor should be. He’s probably going to go out tonight and kill Evgenia Greb’s mother for his supper.
As the vampire rose to go, Asher drew from his pocket a small wrapped bundle of pink tissue-paper and held it out. After the slightest of hesitations, Ysidro took it. He didn’t unfold it, as if he felt through the tissue the slightly deformed gold, the heat-cracked pearl. Only slipped it into his pocket, as he had slipped her letters.
‘I thought you might want it.’
‘’Twas kind.’ Ysidro swung his cloak over his shoulders, though the bitter night held no chill for such as he. ‘Yet did I concern myself with the impedimenta of those whom once I knew, no house could contain them. Mistress Asher will be here on Thursday?’
‘There was a telegraph from her at the bank, sent from Paris this morning.’
‘I trust—’ The vampire stopped himself, a mistake in speech so unusual for him that Asher knew what he had been going to ask.
In an even voice, he replied to the unspoken words. ‘I do not know whether Lydia travels alone or not. I hope she has the good sense to bring Ellen with her – and I hope I may assure her when she gets here that Ellen has nothing to fear from yourself.’
‘As you and I shall be departing on our own travels the day after Mistress Asher arrives from hers,’ responded Ysidro, ‘I believe you can make that assurance.’
‘I understand,’ went on Asher, ‘that about the other Petersburg vampires, you can offer no guarantees.’
‘There are no guarantees regarding anything in this world, James. Neither for the living, nor for the dead.’
Then he was gone. Asher felt the cold pressure of the vampire’s mind on his and resisted it as well as he could, so that he saw his visitor actually go to the door, open it, and let himself out. A convenience, he reflected, in getting past the dvornik unseen, anyway . . .
He draped windows and doors in their shrouds of garlic and white thorn and went to bed. Arctic spring sunrises aside, it had been three very long days.
There was, of course, no question of Mr Jules Plummer of Chicago going to the station to meet the red-haired wife of a New College Lecturer in Folklore upon her arrival in the northern capital. On Thursday, the thirtieth of March by Russian reckoning, Mr Plummer went instead to the palace of Prince Razumovsky on Krestovsky Island, and having let himself onto the grounds with the key the Prince had given him, walked through the birch groves and woodlands, where the first of the spring’s buds were beginning, to the izba near the riverbank where the Prince’s guests sometimes stayed.
The servants there bowed to the honorable Gospodin – there were four of them: a cook, two maids, and a young man from the Prince’s stables who looked after the garden – brought him tea, and went about their work of cleaning and tidying, and shortly after noon the jingle of harness and the crunch of carriage wheels sounded in the drive. Lydia sprang from the low barouche without waiting for the assistance of the Prince’s liveried footman and threw herself into Asher’s arms. ‘It’s all right,’ she whispered, when after the first delirious kiss he raised his head to see the Prince handing another woman out of the carriage. ‘I’ve told her my name is Berkhampton and that you’re my husband, and anyway she’s going home in the morning. Mrs Flasket,’ she introduced, ‘this is my husband, Silas Berkhampton. Mrs Flasket was kind enough to agree to accompany me here at the very last minute . . .’
‘My dear Mrs Berkhampton.’ The stout, square-faced widow made a close-lipped friendly smile that did not quite conceal protruding front teeth. ‘For thirteen years now I’ve made it my business to be company for ladies who find themselves in need of it, and in the course of that time I’ve seen every shabby boarding establishment south of the Thames. An offer to accompany someone to St Petersburg was like a chance to run away with the gypsies.’ Her dark eyes sparkled. ‘I shall very much take my time going back.’
‘Brava.’ Asher bent over her black-gloved hand. If he knew Lydia, this woman would have a generous amount over her train fare.
‘And now,’ declared Mrs Flasket, ‘His Excellency has offered to show me a little more of the estate.’
Razumovsky, resplendent in the London-tailored morning-dress he wore when not in uniform, bowed to her as if to the Empress. ‘If you are not too fatigued, Madame . . .?’
‘Your Excellency, I must be dead before I would pass up the chance to go riding in a carriage with a Russian Prince! Â bientôt, ma’am . . .’ She twinkled and waved.
‘Â bientôt.’ Lydia returned the wave, smiling, as the Prince helped Mrs Flasket – bursting with energy in the dark costume of second-mourning widowhood – into the carriage again. Asher glanced back at the izba behind them, but the servants had all mysteriously disappeared.
The carriage was yet not out of sight behind the brown-and-silver screen of trees as he scooped Lydia up into his arms.
‘Silas?’ he asked later, as he was lacing up Lydia’s corset again.
‘I’ve always liked the name. It’s very American.’ She groped around blindly for her spectacles on the table by the bed.
‘Ah sure ’preciate the compliment, ma’am,’ he replied, in an exaggeration of Jules Plummer’s Midwestern accent, and ducked as she threw her comb at him. ‘Will it cause talk for you to stay here without a companion?’ he added, in his own voice. The clouds had broken, and the silvery afternoon light that Asher always associated with St Petersburg had given way to a thin, sweet sunlight. The birch trees outside the windows, with their tight bronze buds, their tiny cones, seemed clear as something etched on glass. It was unbelievable that the filthy attic he’d seen, with its burned floorboards and its stink of poverty and despair, lay less than a mile away.
‘I asked Prince Razumovsky that.’ In a soft billow of padded silk, Lydia crossed to the dressing table. ‘He said that in Petersburg society nobody would raise an eyebrow if I was staying here openly with a male dancer from the Ballet Russes and two captains of the Imperial guard. I’d be received everywhere – except, perhaps, by the Empress. He said he’d get his sister to take me shopping to put me bien à la mode—’
Asher rolled his eyes in a caricature of an aggrieved husband, which made her laugh. Since it was her family money, he had always taken the position that it was none of his business what she did with it or what she wore, which included hats that resembled coal scuttles and ornamental parasols scarcely larger than sunflowers. He settled against the pillows, tucked his bare feet under the furs, and watched his wife as she undertook her painstaking ritual of skin cream, astringent, rice powder, carmine, talcum, cologne water, tiny touches of mascara, and thirty minutes of braiding, pinning, swagging, studying, ornamenting, demolishing, and redoing the astonishing beauty of her cinnamon-colored hair – removing and replacing her spectacles every few moments all the while. Had she just emerged from a wallow in the stable midden she would still have outshone Helen of Troy, and it never ceased to amaze him that she saw nothing of this: only the size of her nose, and the waif-like thinness of her cheeks.
How could the words of your stepmother and your nannies have had such force that you’ve believed yourself ugly ever since?
In a smaller voice she asked, ‘Do you leave tonight?’
‘At a quarter to midnight. Ysidro says that it is vital that we arrive in daylight, and that we never meet once darkness falls.’
Lydia appeared for a time to concentrate all her attention on the score of tiny pearl buttons that closed the transparent lace of blouse and collar over the silver that ringed her throat. ‘And I’m to find who Theiss associates with – particularly anyone with the social peculiarity of never being seen by daylight?’
‘If you can. Though I can assure you now that half the young dandies and three-quarters of the ladies of Petersburg society never go to bed until dawn and aren’t out of doors until the sun is going down, so there’s a good chance they’ve never noticed if one of their number is strictly nocturnal or not. That’s where the bank records come in.’
She smiled. ‘I don’t need bank records for that, silly.’ And her smile faded. ‘You’ll be careful going through Germany?’
‘I won’t stir a foot out-of-doors once the sun is down. It’s not quite a day and a half to Warsaw,’ Asher went on, as lightly as if they both did not know why it was so vital that none of the vampires in the cities they would visit should learn where Ysidro’s human partner could be found. ‘We’ll reach Berlin at noon on Wednesday – I hope and trust – and with luck be gone from there just after dawn on Thursday. I have no desire to be in Berlin a moment longer than we have to, and even then, it’s too long. Right now my one prayer is that whoever this renegade fledgling is, he or she isn’t from Berlin. I don’t want to have to stay long enough to search for vampire nests, with or without the cooperation of the local master. Being picked up by the Berlin police for burglary would be all I need.’
‘Don Simon would get you out of trouble –’ she turned from the mirror, short-sighted brown eyes filled with the fear she ordinarily hid – ‘wouldn’t he?’
‘He would,’ said Asher grimly. ‘But if the hue and cry resulting from the murder of two or three stray polizei lasted until daylight, I’d then be hard put to protect him long enough to get us both to the Polish border. Right now I’ll settle for hoping that the situation doesn’t arise.’
Her voice deliberately off-hand, she went back to her scrutiny of her eyelashes. ‘I would think Don Simon would be more subtle than to leave official corpses lying about.’
‘As would I. But accidents happen – and the spy who doesn’t take that into account is the spy who doesn’t make it back to home base in one piece and with the goods in his pocket. I hear the silent whisper of invisible minions setting out luncheon, and something tells me His Excellency keeps a high standard in the way of cuisine.’
Ever tactful, Prince Razumovsky did not return to the izba until well into the afternoon, having kept Mrs Flasket entertained at a luncheon of their own at his palace. Lydia meanwhile met and completely charmed the servants – one of whom, Alyssa, the senior maid, spoke excellent French – while they unpacked the companion’s luggage in the smaller chamber that Mrs Flasket would occupy for one night before returning to England.
‘She really is an excellent companion,’ said Lydia, as through one of the wide windows they observed Razumovsky and the widow emerge from the woods that almost completely hid the little cottage from the palace. ‘She’s read everything from Plato to penny dreadfuls, can argue any political question backwards and forwards – once I’d assured her she didn’t have to keep up a flow of chat on the train, I don’t know how many newspapers she read . . . She can even keep track of what’s going on in the Balkans, and nobody I know but you can do that! And she knows about fashion and cricket and how to care for lapdogs, enough to at least keep up small talk about it for hours, if small talk is what you were paying her for. I’ve written her a recommendation for my Aunt Louise in Paris—’
‘I’ve met your Aunt Louise and that isn’t a kindness.’
‘Well, no, but she does pay very well for the boredom and abuse she serves out, and poor Mrs F. is very much in need of a job. And I think she’d enjoy living in Paris. And she’s the most tactful creature in the world. It’s the one thing Don Simon did teach me, you know,’ she added, with that slightly forced note her voice took on when she spoke the vampire’s name. ‘That whatever you need in any city in the world, there’s someone you can get to do it, if you have enough money.’
She half-opened her lips then to say something else – about Ysidro, Asher thought – and then closed them as the Prince and the companion crossed the covered veranda, stomping mud and gravel from their shoes. The only snow that remained was on the shady side of the trees. It would probably freeze again that night, Asher judged, seeing how Razumovsky’s breath smoked in the deepening slant of the light. But in a week the birch trees would begin to leaf.
‘I expect you had best be going,’ said Lydia softly.
‘I had, yes.’ He laid his hand over hers. He wanted to remain with her the way a drowning man wanted breath, with the whole of his flesh and being. Yet he remembered the cold grip of the vampire Ippo’s hands on his arms, the flickering pale ghosts of the Moscow vampires as they leaped weightlessly to the top of the wall . . .
And he would have thrown himself into the teeth of a threshing machine before he would have given any of those creatures – who knew him, who had seen his face – the slightest hint that there was someone in St Petersburg to whom he, Ysidro’s human servant, might tell secrets.
‘Be careful,’ she said softly, as he brought up her fingers and her palm to kiss, memorizing the touch of them, knowing he’d want that memory in the days ahead. ‘Tell Ysidro— Give him my best.’
‘I will.’ Seeing the trouble in her eyes, he added, ‘He understands, you know.’
‘I know.’ She nodded slightly. ‘I’m glad he does,’ she added. ‘I – we – owe him a great deal, and I don’t want him to think I’m ungrateful for his protection of you. And of me, for that matter. It’s just that – I don’t ever want to see him again.’ And she took off her glasses, lest Razumovsky and Mrs Flasket, opening the door with laughter and jokes, should behold her in them.