Blood Maidens (Page 17)


‘You are certain you’ll be well here?’ Prince Razumovsky leaned one powerful shoulder against the carved pillar of the veranda, a rough mosaic of green uniform and gold sun-splashes: beard, buttons, the braid of his sleeves. What was it, Lydia wondered, that drew male Russian aristocrats to wear uniforms whenever they could, even if they weren’t serving officers? A craving for brilliant plumage instead of the proper blues and grays and browns to which Western Civilization had condemned men, poor things?

‘Perfectly, thank you, Prince.’ She folded her hands on the neat piles of account books before her. ‘You’ve left me more than ample entertainment—’

‘And you truly find this perusal of dry numbers entertaining?’

Does he really think the idea of having affaires with half the Imperial Guards officers would amuse a woman? Well, she reflected, it certainly seems to amuse his sister . . .

‘Oh, absolutely! It’s a puzzle, like an egg hunt at Easter – or—’ She gestured, trailing the edge of her sleeve lace through the wet ink-line on her notes. ‘Or like analyzing the results of a series of graduated filtrations. Figuring out what things mean, or what they could mean—’

‘I think it a great shame,’ said the Prince, stepping around the wickerwork table to take and kiss her hand, ‘that your husband will probably never permit you to work for our Third Sector.’ With startling suddenness, spring had come to St Petersburg; though the weather was still sharply chill, Lydia found the sea air sweet and the touch of the sun on her face a blessing. Beyond the veranda’s carved railing, the woods were tender with new green.

‘I will give your very best wishes to my mother,’ the Prince continued, ‘who I suspect only wants to lecture une Anglaise on the spiritual virtues of living in the Russian countryside – not that she herself could tell a mushroom from a birch tree – and your excuses, and will return in no more than a week. And, of course, if your egg hunt palls, by all means walk up to the house and telephone Annushka or Ninochka or Sashenka –’ he named several of the ladies whom Lydia had met through the Circle of Astral Light – ‘and make them take you to tea at Donon’s. Sashenka –’ that was a very dashing, raven-haired Baroness whom Lydia suspected of being one of her host’s mistresses – ‘at least won’t try to involve you in conversations with the dead.’

‘It isn’t the seances I mind.’ Lydia reflected that conversations with the actual dead had been, in her experience, far more interesting than the ersatz variety moderated by mysterious individuals with names like Oneida and Princess Golden Eagle. ‘In fact, I found Madame Muremsky’s most instructive, though they did become quite annoyed when I insisted on wearing my spectacles and asked about why the lights had to be out – unreasonably so, I thought.’ She dabbed a corner of her blotting paper at the inky disaster on the page, then gave it up. She hoped one of the maids up at the main house could deal with the sleeve lace.

‘But the religion does trouble me. It’s not that I am religious,’ she hastened to add, reading the shift of Razumovsky’s shoulders, the tilt of his head – for of course she had concealed her spectacles under a pile of Deutsches Bank credit transfer records the moment she’d glimpsed the Prince’s refulgent form beyond the trees – and guessing that her words had touched a chord in his own thoughts. ‘But it seems to blind them so. To render everything into black and white, so that anything that claims to be holy they automatically assume is all good, straight through, and has no . . . no patches of fallibility—’

‘Like our friend Rasputin,’ said the Prince, a little grimly. ‘Who seems to be one entire patch of fulminating fallibility . . . Did he make an attempt on your virtue before he left town?’

‘Oddly enough, no. I mean,’ she added, ‘not that it’s odd that a man wouldn’t, because plenty of men don’t . . . but, honestly, so many of the gentlemen in society here do! And they seem so surprised when I’m not interested – and why would I be? I scarcely know them!’

Razumovsky laughed. ‘Ah, Madame, in Petersburg society that doesn’t matter.’

‘So I’ve deduced,’ said Lydia. ‘Which seems so odd to me . . . And it does make me wonder about what Father Gregory gets up to, if he’s considered excessive by comparison. It must be dreadfully fatiguing. But I think he’s on his best behavior when Madame Vyrubova is around.’

The Prince grunted. ‘You’re in a small circle indeed, then, Madame. They are bored, you understand,’ he went on after a moment, and in his voice was not the impatience Lydia had often heard, when men said that of upper-class women. He propped his boot on the seat of the other chair, leaned his forearms on his thigh. ‘Bored and discontented, and indeed why should they not be? After Easter one goes to the Crimea; in the summer one visits one’s country estates; in August one goes to one’s Polish estates, for the hunting . . . In September it is either back to the Crimea, or to Monte Carlo or Nice or Paris, before the Season opens here in Petersburg. And in all of those places one sees the people one knows from Petersburg or Paris or Vienna: one dances the waltz, one goes to the Opera. If you’re a girl – like my sisters, God help them, or my poor wife –’ this was the first the startled Lydia had heard of this lady – ‘one waits out one’s time until one is old enough to put one’s hair up and be fitted for evening dresses and go dancing and gambling, in order to get married to a man who loses what interest he had in you very quickly—’

Softly, Lydia said, ‘I know. All my life, when I was a child, and in school . . . It’s as if one is being swept away by a flooding river – at least, I suppose it is, though I’ve never actually been swept away by a flooding river . . . But so often I felt as if I were fighting a current that was too strong for me. And, instead of trying to help me, all the people on the river bank were trying to push me back into the water. Except Jamie.’

Razumovsky was close enough that she could see, as well as sense, his smile. ‘Except Jamie,’ he said.

‘But the thing is,’ Lydia went on, ‘it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s the troubling thing about it. Not the religion – because I should imagine, in all the centuries of the human race, that God has seen so many varieties of religious sensibility that He’s past being surprised by anything – but the waste of minds and energy that could better be used at actually helping the poor, instead of . . . of trying to get in touch with the dead, or find out how many civilizations of hyper-sentient spirits rose and fell on this planet in the dark abysses of time before humankind evolved.’

The Prince’s smile widened to a grin at this description of some of the articles of faith among the devotees of Astral Light, and of dozens of other occult societies in the city. Then he sighed and shook his head. ‘But religion is a thing that they can master without education, you see,’ he explained. ‘To which, God knows, few girls of my class have access, for all the expense of Swiss boarding-schools and Madame Dupage’s Exclusive Establishment for Young Females, Rue St Honoré . . . And, as you say, while the current of dress fittings and dances and beaux sweeps them away, their parents and friends and everyone whom they speak to is standing lined up on the riverbank pushing them back in. So those without a Jamie to pull them out when they were— How old were you, when you met him?’

‘Thirteen,’ said Lydia. ‘Sixteen, when he helped me swot for my exams to get into Somerville, but he’d been helping me find tutors and things for a year before that. I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, you see.’

‘Thirteen,’ said Razumovsky, and his handsome face was sad. ‘And now those young ladies are twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and they have not had educations and can not marshal either the mental discipline or the informational knowledge to take pleasure in— What did you call it? Analyzing results? Their souls are ravenous, and they do not know for what. And, here in Russia, religion is not like religion in England . . . or anywhere else in the world, I think. Here in Russia, fairies and devils are as real as angels – and angels are as real as one’s village priest. Here in Russia – perhaps because of the long winters, or the vastness of the land – one feels the Other World is very close. Have you not sensed it, when you sit on the veranda here in the twilight? Have you not felt that if you walked a little way down the path –’ he nodded towards the graveled way that led back into the woods, towards the birch groves and the river – ‘that you might meet bathhouse spirits, or swan maidens, or a kobold carrying a load of magical sticks? Russia has not been civilized for very long,’ he added gently. ‘For good or for ill, these things still lie very close to the skin. And now I am late!’

He straightened as the blue-and-burgundy form of a servant – by his walk and bearing, Lydia identified Jov the butler long before the man came close enough for her to make out his long, wrinkled face – appeared on the pathway. Razumovsky flung out his arms. ‘I come, I come! See how I hasten—’

‘It is my duty to preserve your Excellency from a beating at your mother’s hands,’ returned Jov with a grin. Like most of the Prince’s upper servants, he spoke excellent French. ‘And to save myself one, for not hastening your Excellency to his train. Madame Asher would not be persuaded to visit the Dowager Princess at Byerza? Madame,’ he added, turning to address her – a dapper, elderly man with enormous grizzled side-whiskers that reminded Lydia of James’s current disguise. ‘Be assured that I speak for all of us when I say, do not hesitate to issue the smallest of commands.’

‘Thank you.’ Lydia got to her feet, extended her hands to the Prince. ‘And thank you, Prince—’

‘Andrei,’ he corrected her. ‘If Madame will be so kind. Until Monday next, then.’ He kissed her hand again and was gone, disappearing among the bare silvery trees.

Lydia returned to her wickerwork chair and drew her shawl around her again, but for a long time she did not return to her systematic examination of Deutsches Bank property transactions over the past five years. Instead she sat, turning over in her mind what the Prince had said about the ladies of her acquaintance. From informants about possible partners and patrons of Benedict Theiss, they had become friends, some of them . . . On the previous Friday she had accompanied Natalia, and the Baroness Sashenka, and several others of their circle, to the night-long services of the Orthodox Good Friday; and had gone with them again the following night, praying and standing and praying and standing and singing and inhaling incense, and had seen the ecstasy of Easter on the faces all around her . . .

And had been propositioned four times at the Pascha breakfast after the Easter morning services, once by the Baroness’s husband. She didn’t doubt the sincerity of their beliefs, and yet – how easy it was to believe one was engaged in some vital quest for knowledge, when all one was doing was chasing phantoms in a dream . . .

If one could only figure out, she reflected, retrieving her spectacles from beneath the pile of her notes, which was the phantom, and which the reality.

Else why was she trying to trace money sent from a dead man’s bank account in some unknown city, to purchase property in a place where even the Undead were unable to walk for two months of the year? Which makes a good deal less sense, she sighed, than attempting to have a straightforward conversation with one’s deceased Uncle Harold, something which at least has the virtue of repeated anecdotal evidence.

She dunked her pen in the inkwell, found her place again, and continued with her notes.

‘I want to see the American consul.’

‘Not the British consul?’ The interrogator was an elderly man, almost a caricature of a Prussian Junker: tall, fair, and with the contempt of one who has grown up knowing himself to be the ruler of every human being around him, outside his own family.

‘I tell you I don’t know who the hell this Professor Leyden is that you keep saying I am. My name is Plummer, and I’m from Chicago—’

‘Then why did you assault the officers sent to apprehend you at the Bahnhof?’

Because I knew damn well my story wouldn’t hold up for ten minutes. ‘I told you, I thought he was this rat-bastard German named Speigel who’s been followin’ me ever since I come to Köln, swearin’ I’m the man who meddled with his sister, the ugly cow—’

‘And how long has that been?’

‘Two days.’

‘And you did not report this to the police?’

‘Mister –’Asher poked his finger at the officer in his best imitation of an American engineer he’d known in Tsingtao – ‘you know goddamn little about Americans if you think we run snivelin’ to the cops every time a man leans on us for one thing or another. We take care of our own problems.’

Behind thick pince-nez, the interrogator’s blue eyes narrowed. ‘Evidently. Yet none of this explains why you then assaulted the police officers a second time on the platform, when it was amply clear to anyone but an imbecile that they were the police and not civilian attackers.’

‘Well, maybe by that time you put my dander up.’

And thank God everyone from Land’s End to Yokohama knows Americans think elevated dander a perfectly appropriate reason for taking on six policemen and two officers of the artillery.

He was taken back to his cell. There were two other men in it with him, one a laborer from Saxony on the Neuehrenfeld gun emplacements, the other an elderly Frenchman who persisted in shoving, cursing at, and haranguing the Saxon about Alsace-Lorraine and the foul attempts by the Germans to spy out the secrets of the French Army and then corrupt the populace with lies about the efficacy of that Army to defend La Patrie. Asher, whose whole body ached from the fracas at the Bahnhof, wished he could unobtrusively kill them both.

Grated windows gave onto a minuscule areaway about two feet below the level with the Rathaus courtyard. When the endless day ended and darkness finally fell, Asher wondered if Ysidro had emerged from his coffin before the train stopped in Berlin, and if Mrs Flasket had gotten herself away safely. How soon would the vampire become aware that he, Asher, was not in the city with him? And what would he do then?

A jail officer brought food: bean porridge in cheap tin bowls, water, and bread. Men talked in other cells, desultory abuse in five separate varieties of Rhineland German. The gray-haired Frenchman – for the dozenth time – ranted at the Saxon about l’Affair Dreyfus, despite the fact that the Saxon knew not a single word of what was being said to him. As silence gradually settled on the cells, Asher unobtrusively flipped open his box of ‘snuff’ and rubbed some of it on his gums.

It might be morning before Ysidro realized that, in the parlance of the Department, plans had come unstuck. But growing in the back of his mind was the uneasy vision of Petronilla Ehrenberg’s handsome town house in Neuehrenfeld . . . and the recollection of the fact that, because of the shortness of time before the departure of the train, he had not searched it from top to bottom. If she slept there, she would have kept her coffin in a crypt or sub cellar, like the one beneath Ysidro’s rented nest in Prague or the one in Lady Eaton’s shallow cellar in Petersburg.

And he had no assurance that some other vampire had not been sleeping in that crypt, aware of him – as he knew vampires were sometimes aware – in its sleep.

Towards dawn he slept, and save for those intervals when his two cell-mates so infuriated one another as to attempt to settle European politics between them with fists, he dozed on and off through most of the day. When he asked the guard if the American consul had been contacted, the man said he didn’t know, and in truth Asher knew this was a hazardous ploy at best. America, greedily snapping up every territory it could lay hands on in the Pacific and the Orient, had little use for Europe. Its Presidents tended to appoint as consuls personal friends whom they considered deserving of four years’ paid holiday in Europe, or useful political supporters, ditto. Considering the strategic position of Köln on German’s defensive line, the Americans were more than likely to wash their hands of him with Pilate-like speed . . .

And, of course, for the same reason, the Department – if he were willing to condemn himself in advance by asking for the British Consul – would do likewise.

He dreamed that night of Lydia, as he’d dreamed of her in China and later in Africa, in the years between his despairing realization that he loved that budding girl as a man loves a woman, and his return from Africa to find her disinherited and able – for all her family cared – to marry a poor man after all.

Lydia in white gauze and a wide-brimmed hat, with her red hair down her back . . .

Lydia glancing sidelong at him beneath those long dark lashes and saying, You really ARE a spy, aren’t you?

Lydia . . .

He jerked awake with a gasp, but the cell was empty save for his snoring comrades. Under the dim flicker of the gas beyond the bars, the corridor lay shadowed but still.

On the second day – Tuesday – the American Consul visited him, and it quickly became clear that this square-jawed, disapproving banker with an insanely spreading beard wanted nothing to do with wild Midwesterners who got into brawls with the German police on railway platforms. ‘You understand my position, I hope, Mr Palmer,’ said Mr McGuffey, in his dry New England accent, and folded plump clerkly hands. ‘I will, of course, cable Chicago at once to confirm your bona fides, but if you are as you say you are, I’m sure all these matters can be straightened out.’

The following morning Asher was taken from his cell to the office, where the same interrogator as before informed him – with a telling glance at the brown stubble that was ghosting visibly back into existence on the shaved top of his head – that a telegram had been sent to the Auswärtiges Amt in Berlin, and that he – Professor Ignatius Leyden aka Jules Plummer of Chicago – was facing a military court and a charge of espionage.