Blood Maidens (Page 12)


They left St Petersburg at just before midnight. First light showed Asher the trackless, boggy forests of the Baltic plain through the window of the first-class compartment. Ysidro had vanished some time before that, and Asher slept for a few hours in the very handsome wagon-lit provided by the Russian Imperial Rail Service, then woke to a view substantially the same. Gray-trunked pines with sodden snow still around their feet; the far-off glint of lakes; sometimes the blunt gray walls of ancient fortresses that spoke of terrible medieval wars that English schoolchildren never heard of. Then more trees.

‘I take it,’ Ysidro inquired on the following night, when at last the northern twilight had shimmered out of existence, ‘that the Polish tongue is not one of your accomplishments?’

‘You are correct. But, even more so than in Russia, the Polish aristocracy are more fluent in French and German than in the language their own peasants speak. At least in some circles in Russia, it’s fashionable to know a little Russian.’

Ysidro dismissed the entire Slavic race with a single movement of fine-cut nostrils. ‘It were best, then, that you do not see the Warsaw vampires at all. Molchanov and Golenischev spoke of them with contempt, but that may have been because they were Russians, speaking of a conquered people. Will you be in danger on your own account, in that city?’

‘I have a good book,’ replied Asher, ‘and a secure room to read it in. Much as it would interest me to view the city again, I have learned to take no chances whilst Abroad.’

As in Moscow and St Petersburg, Ysidro had arranged for his own lodging in an antique but well-kept town house in the Old City and for Asher’s in a pension not far away. Asher saw their considerable luggage, including Ysidro’s enormous coffin-trunk, brought to the town house, and he remained there through the long spring day, reading Les Miserables, napping, playing the piano in the parlor – old tunes from childhood, a practice he found soothing on the occasions that his motorcycle was unavailable to him – and watching the street below. At eight – the sun westering in the high northern sky – he departed, got himself a café dinner in the Ulica Senatorska, and was in his own pension room while twilight lingered yet over the red-and-gold steeples of the town.

Abroad, he had learned long ago to see cities in terms of danger and safety – zones marked clearly on a mental map – and in terms of the likelihood of encountering an enemy, or the occasional necessity of a quick escape. There wasn’t a city from Petersburg to Lisbon that he could not traverse unseen by the local police, if need be. As a young man he had loved the cities of Europe for their beauty and their age, for palaces and parks, for the astonishing variety of passers-by and peddlers’ cries and the many-colored torrents of languages that flowed like streams along the cobbled ways. He had been sorry – more profoundly sorry than he had realized at the time – when he’d become aware that this love for these places was fading into the instinctive wariness of the Job.

Perhaps that loss had let him fully comprehend the regret in Ysidro’s voice, when the vampire had spoken of those for whom all things had become matters of indifference, except for the Hunt and the Kill.

He had not known, he realized now, when he was well off, with only that loss to mourn.

Since knowing the vampires – knowing that they were real – the cities of Europe had changed for him once again. They had become places where the danger was not only real, but unfathomable. He found he could not pass an ancient church without wondering what might be sleeping in its crypts – what would wake with fall of dark; could not cross the old stone pavements without seeing them as only a brittle crust above an abyss of demons.

Demons who now threatened to emerge and become part of the politics of blood and iron.

How could I have left Lydia alone in such a place?

Yet he knew that she was no safer in Oxford, if one of the London vampires should decide to run the risk of Ysidro’s formidable wrath and put her out of the way. The journey up from London was a short one.

Don’t think of it. He closed his eyes, rested his forehead on the window’s dark glass. The sword was offered you one more time, and you grasped it, of your own free will. You accepted the Job, yet again . . .

Because he knew in his heart that he could not have done otherwise.

Somewhere, there is a German scientist working with a vampire. And you need a vampire to help you destroy the threat of what that scientist will unleash on the world.

But he had to sit for some time, hearing the clacking of traffic in the darkness below, before the red-hot knot of fear loosened a little in his chest and he could go back to the long-ago sorrows of Jean Valjean.

When full daylight was back to the sky, he returned to the town house and found on the piano seat two tickets for the 11:52 express that night to Berlin.

‘Nothing.’ The vampire slid shut the door of the first-class compartment as the lights of Warsaw were swallowed behind them in darkness and mist. ‘No fledgling has left this nest. Nor, they say, have they heard of any such in Gdansk, a city whose master spawned the Master of Warsaw. They are blockheads,’ he added, in the tone of an entomologist identifying a common species of bug. ‘Arrogant and intolerant.’ Considering Ysidro’s heritage of Reconquista and Inquisition, Asher did not think the Spanish vampire had a great deal of room to talk.

As he had when they had passed through Berlin on the way to St Petersburg, Asher found himself prey to the conviction that all the men who’d associated with him as the Herr Professor Leyden in the various cities of Germany during the early nineties had foregathered in the Empire’s capital and were all looking for him – a conviction upon which he was hard put to close his mental door so that he could behave normally. From long experience – his own, and the observed behavior of others – he knew how difficult it was to act ‘naturally,’ whatever ‘naturally’ might be; how fine a line separates an ordinary American accent from an assumed drawl that practically shouts to the observant ear, Ah-all am a fake!

He had seen more than one Department novice stopped by the police, essentially, for overdoing a disguise to the point where it was obvious that it was a disguise.

It was difficult not to keep checking the shaven skin of his head, to make sure that he’d gotten every last millimeter of stubble. Even after decades of the Job, he felt the impulse to reassure himself of his appearance at every reflective surface he passed, though this behavior was among the first things he looked for in men he suspected of playing for the Opposition. It was like not scratching an itch.

He remained indoors at Ysidro’s elegant rented apartment through the daylight hours, and at his own hotel from sunset on, jotting notes in a personal code as to the addresses of these temporary nests. One never knew when the smallest trifles of information would become critical to one’s survival: like Lydia’s artless queries over tea and shopping, about who might be a ‘special friend’ of whom. It was from addresses and street names that recurred, names or even initials that repeated, as much as from property that changed hands suspiciously or not at all, that Lydia was able to put together the location of possible nests.

He slept for a few hours and dreamed of bombs falling on London, though the man who stood in the doorway of the lightless house by the lake of blood wasn’t Ysidro, but Benedict Theiss.

When the sun rose at six he returned to Ysidro’s apartment with two porters and a cab, to load up the luggage there and make his way to the Anhalter Bahnhof. By two that afternoon they were in Prague.

‘Princess Stana –’ Prince Razumovsky bowed deeply as their hostess crossed the tiled conservatory vestibule – ‘might I present Madame Asher of England, the wife of an old friend? Madame Asher, Her Royal Highness Princess Stana Petrovich Njegosh of Montenegro.’

‘Enchanted.’ The dark lady wearing – even to Lydia’s short-sighted gaze – rather more jewelry than Englishwomen would have donned in the afternoon, over rather less bodice, held out a lace-mitted hand and, when Lydia would have curtseyed, laughed and tugged her up again. ‘Silly miss! Here we are all just women who share a passion for the spiritual evolution of the Soul of Humankind.’ She pressed Lydia’s hands between her own. ‘And its physical well-being,’ she added, with a smile at Razumovsky. ‘How mysterious is the bond that binds the flesh with the spirit, the physical heart with the soul that dwells within! Dearest Andrei –’ she put her arm through the Prince’s – ‘tells me you are a physician yourself, Madame . . . Such a formal title, Madame! Might I call you Lydia? So much more natural! And please do call me Stana! Andrei tells me you research the blood, the way dearest Benedict does . . . Madame Asher—’

While she had chatted in her soft alto voice she had been leading them deeper into the jungles of fern and orchids, towards the men and women gathered around three small tables of white wickerwork in a sort of crystalline rotunda of foliage and glass.

‘—please allow me to present Dr Benedict Theiss.’

The gentleman into whose affairs Lydia had come to St Petersburg to inquire was, so far as she could tell, almost exactly Jamie’s six-foot height, with thinning dark hair and a close-clipped, square-cut beard that made a rectangular frame for his rectangular features. He wore a camel-colored tweed suit and a gentleman’s cologne scented with sandalwood and lemon; his big hand within its worn glove was firm and strong. After disowning any true knowledge of blood chemistry: ‘It’s the glandular secretions that are my specialty, but I was fascinated by the similarity of some of your theories about proteins . . .’ Lydia steered the conversation to his clinic in the Vyborg-side slums with the hope of learning something of its funding, and was quickly, and rather disconcertingly, struck with the man’s compassionate anger when he spoke of the lives of the poor.

‘By and large, the rich don’t care,’ he said, in a deep, quiet voice that Lydia guessed would have won him his fortune as a nerve doctor to wealthy female clients. ‘So long as their factories and their tenement properties turn a profit – present company of course excepted,’ he added, with a bow in the direction of Her Royal Highness and Her Royal Highness’s equally dark, bejeweled, and Royal sister, ‘it doesn’t concern the Semyanikovs and the Putilovs and the other owners of property how they live – these people who work for sixteen hours out of twenty-four making boots or guns or lace; these people who sleep two families to a room in chambers I wouldn’t house a dog in. They don’t see them. I don’t think most women who buy lace think that someone had to make that lace, much less that that someone might have a sweetheart or a mother or a younger brother whom that someone loves as dearly as the Madame getting into her motor car in the Bolshaya Morskaya loves her own sweetheart or mother or brother.’

At one of the other little tables – an extravagant Lenten tea had been spread in the fashion of a bistro, among the banks of hothouse aspidistra and tubbed orange-trees – a man spoke in Russian, and turning her head, despite her lack of spectacles Lydia saw at the other table the man who could only be the one Asher had described to her from the Theosophists’ Ball, the silk-clothed peasant who had seen Ysidro when Ysidro did not want to be seen. He was among a group of ladies – an impression of gorgeous colors and the susurration of costly silk – and she could tell by the way they jockeyed each other for position close to him that they hung on this bearded man’s every word.

One of them – a stout little woman in garish pink who was sitting on the peasant’s knee – looked over at Lydia and translated, ‘Father Gregory says, you get these same rich people out into the country, and suddenly the peasants on their estates are their friends.’

Lydia was close enough to Theiss to see by his wry sidelong smile that he had no great opinion of Father Gregory. But he replied with a sigh, ‘Father Gregory is quite right, alas, Annushka. It is fashionable in certain circles to know the names of your coachman’s children and to toss the cook’s little girl candy . . . to show how close one is to the soil, I suppose.’

But when Annushka in pink translated, the Father shook his head – Lydia could almost hear the greasy locks of his hair rattle – and objected:

‘No, Father Gregory says that it is the city itself that blinds men to the joys and griefs of their fellows.’

So earnest was the translator’s voice that Dr Theiss said gently, ‘Perhaps the good father is right, Annushka. I am not a countryman myself.’

As the other ladies of the Circle of Astral Light came over to be introduced, Lydia found, rather to her surprise, that Razumovsky – at a fern-bowered table a little distance away, deep in a flirtation with his hostess – had been absolutely right when he’d said that her staying unchaperoned at the izba on his property wouldn’t make the slightest difference to St Petersburg society. In London she would have been looked at askance, if she was admitted to the house at all. Here, under the aegis of Razumovsky and his equally tall, equally golden-haired sister Natalia – who greeted her with kisses like a long-lost sister – she found herself accepted, sympathized with (‘That GHASTLY long journey from Paris, my dear, I can’t IMAGINE how Irina Muremsky DOES it every year for dress fittings . . .’), invited to a dozen soirées, dinners, and teas (‘No dancing, I’m afraid, dearest, it IS Lent . . .’), and introduced to Father Gregory Rasputin (‘My dear, a most extraordinary man . . . a genuine saint . . .’), though the look Father Gregory gave her when he kissed her, peasant-fashion, on both cheeks was one of the least saintly Lydia had ever encountered.

‘He does that to everyone,’ giggled plump Annushka.

Evidently, Father Gregory was on his best behavior, for beyond that, for the most part, he sat listening to the conversation – the bulk of which was in French – or trading remarks with his own little cluster of devotees in Russian and consuming caviar with his hands. But when Theiss drew Lydia into speculation about the crossing-over point between the psychic and the physical, the Princess Stana said, ‘Perhaps we might ask Father Gregory, since he has within his flesh the power to heal,’ and the peasant considered for a time the questions Lydia asked.

At length he shook his head and replied – Annushka Vyrubova translating: ‘You look in the wrong place for answers, beautiful lady. I know not whether God sends His healing through my soul or through my flesh, and it doesn’t matter.’

‘It might,’ responded Lydia, ‘if by knowing how it is done, you can learn to be a stronger healer, or a better one.’

Father Gregory’s mad gray eyes smiled gently into hers. ‘Always learning. Beautiful lady, has learning given you that which you desire most in the world?’

And Lydia knew, to the core of her heart, that he meant, Has it given you a child?

And felt her eyes flood with tears. At the miscarriages, at the hopes raised and hopes defeated. At the shamed suspicion that she was too flawed to conceive, a suspicion she hid even from the man she loved . . . and at showing it to this smelly stranger with fish eggs in his beard.

As if they had been alone, he laid a grubby hand to her cheek. ‘Matyushka,’ he said. ‘You learn, the way I sin, because we cannot be other than we are. God knows what He needs you to do . . . And you will have His gift, when the hour is right.’ His brows pulled together, and he began to say something else to her, but just then the Princess’s sister came rustling over in a pearl-sewn cloud of aubergine-colored taffeta, demanding something in voluble Russian, and Father Gregory turned to her with hands outstretched.

‘If you indeed learn the way Rasputin sins, Mrs Asher,’ remarked Dr Theiss drily, ‘your store of knowledge must be formidable indeed,’ and Lydia, remembering the insistent kisses the holy man had given her, burst out laughing.

‘Tell me, Doctor,’ she asked him. ‘How did you come to St Petersburg? I believe His Excellency said you were from Munich?’

Something changed in Theiss’s eyes, their warm hazel brightness clouding. ‘I was born in a city called Munich, yes,’ he said slowly. ‘A city which no longer exists. In a country called Bavaria, which is as . . . as gone from this world as any of those Vedic kingdoms these ladies –’ he nodded slightly in the direction of the group around Rasputin – ‘speak of as having once existed, eons ago in lands now at the bottom of the sea. My country wed herself to Prussia the way a young girl will throw herself into the arms of a bad and violent man, and it is . . . just as painful to watch, for those who love her. I see where Prussia is leading this German Reich of theirs, and I shudder for my country. I am sorry,’ he added at once, pressing her hand. ‘I did not mean—’

Lydia shook her head. ‘You sound very homesick.’

‘Only a fool wants to go back to the land of childhood . . . Or perhaps it is the longing for the certainties of childhood that makes a man a fool. I have work here – vital work . . .’ His face saddened at some recollection.

‘His Excellency has spoken of the good you do at your clinic.’

‘Ah – the clinic.’ He smoothed the white streaks that marked his beard on either side of his mouth. The note of regret did not leave his voice. ‘His Excellency is too kind. At the clinic, I plow the sea. The work there is endless – and soul-breaking. There was a time when I thought I should never be able to return to my true work.’

‘Have you been able to, then, Doctor?’

‘Thanks to these ladies—’ His small gesture took in his hostesses, mutually enraptured in Annushka’s account of a seance at Madame Golovina’s. ‘One does what one can. I’m happy to say that now at least I can afford an assistant, my good Texel, who is there now.’

‘Might I visit your clinic? I must say,’ she added, following his gaze, ‘I would be extremely curious to test our friend Father Gregory’s proteins, if he is supposed to be a healer. It might be enlightening to see whether such a talent is indeed embodied in the chemistry of flesh or blood, since I find it difficult to believe it would be in his soul . . .’

‘I think you would find,’ smiled Theiss, ‘that his flesh is as base as his instincts, and that the healing he does comes from the miraculous powers that imbue the minds of his subjects, rather than his own. The human mind is an astonishing thing, Mrs Asher, a thing of miracles – as is the human flesh that the rich, and the rulers of this earth, treat so casually. We are capable of astonishing things, without any need of a fake holy man from Siberia.’ He lowered his voice conspiratorially and glanced towards the two princesses. ‘But, I beg of you, don’t tell Their Royal Highnesses I said so.’

And yet, reflected Lydia, if Father Gregory Rasputin was merely reading what he found in the faces of those who believed in him, he was reading very accurately indeed. For as she shivered in her gray furs on the shallow steps above the courtyard, waiting for the Prince’s car to be brought around, Annushka Vyrubova emerged from the palace doors and rustled up to her side.

‘Please forgive me, Madame Asher – and please, please understand I would not ask this, except Father Gregory was so deeply troubled by it . . .’

If he asks me for an assignation, what do I say? Lydia blinked uncertainly at the chubby little blonde woman in the dowdy pink gown. Two of the male members of the Circle of Astral Light – young officers in the Tsar’s elite Guards regiments – had already taken her aside and let her know that they were interested in beginning affaires with her, on what seemed to Lydia to be extremely short acquaintance . . .

‘He asks, who is this man that you love, who walks in the . . . in the darkness.’ Annushka seemed to be fishing to translate the man’s peasant Russian into proper French. ‘He said he’s seen him – the man with the dark halo—’

While Lydia was still staring at her in shock, the holy man himself ducked and slithered through the group around the door and strode over to them in his heavy boots. ‘Tyemno-svyet,’ he agreed, and he made a gesture around his own head and shoulders, as if trying to describe an invisible aura.

‘Dark light,’ Annushka Vyrubova corrected herself painstakingly. ‘He asks, who is this? He has been here, he has seen him at the Winter Palace . . .’

Lydia shook her head, knowing that he meant Ysidro – for her husband had told her of Rasputin’s words at the Theosophist Society Ball . . . I can’t let him connect me and Jamie through Ysidro . . .

Who is this man that you love, who walks in the darkness . . .?

. . . this man that you love . . .

‘Smotritye!’ insisted Father Gregory, pointing. ‘Tam!’ And followed this with a flood of Russian, soft-voiced and urgent, as Lydia turned in time to see a woman get out of a motor car at the foot of the shallow steps: so insistent was Father Gregory’s voice that, after a quick glance at the group around Razumovsky and the princesses to make sure no one was looking, Lydia whipped her spectacles from her handbag and put them on—

‘There is another one of them,’ translated Annushka, obviously tremendously worried about either the vehemence – or the outrageousness – of her friend’s contention. ‘He asks – Father Gregory asks – what are these things that look like men and women, that walk in the dark light? I’m so sorry,’ she added at once. ‘Father Gregory is a visionary, he sees into the souls of men . . . and women, too—’

‘Tyemno-svyet,’ insisted the holy man again, pointing to the woman over whose hand, now, Benedict Theiss was bending in a sort of affectionate punctiliousness.

A beautiful woman in her mid-thirties, clothed in a sulfur-yellow Worth ensemble that must have cost at least two hundred pounds. The thought flashed through Lydia’s mind, Of course she’d wear a veil if she’s a vampire . . . only to be dismissed. It’s five in the afternoon, for Heaven’s sake . . .! The sun stood high in the Arctic sky.

‘He asks, do you not see?’

The woman put back her veil – champagne-colored point-lace that wouldn’t have stopped a glance, let alone sunlight – and readjusted the stole of red-and-black sables that hung over her shoulder to her heels. A determined oval face, a firm chin, pale as new wax in the spring sunlight.

‘She is another of them,’ translated Madame Vyrubova, glancing worriedly from Father Gregory’s face to Lydia’s, and back to the courtyard as Dr Theiss helped the woman in yellow into the sleek red touring-car, removed his hat to climb in after her. ‘What are they, these demons who wear darkness like a garment, to walk among men?’

Lydia said, breathless, ‘I don’t know. I have never seen that woman in my life. I – I have no idea what Father Gregory is talking about.’

And, thanking her stars that Razumovsky’s motor car had drawn up into the place left by the red touring-car as it drove away, she almost ran down the steps, so swiftly that the chauffeur was hard put to open the door for her in time.