Blood Maidens (Page 7)
The Theosophical Society’s charity ball was held – in the absence of the Imperial Family, who hadn’t lived in the Winter Palace in years – in one of the Palace’s larger halls: a jaw-dropping barn of crimson curtains and golden columns that looked as if it could have swallowed Westminster Abbey whole. Even Ysidro – who gave the impression that the destruction of the planet would not discompose him – paused for a moment on the threshold and said, in his soft expressionless voice, ‘Dios.’
Asher hid a grin. ‘Travel is broadening,’ he observed, and the vampire’s pale-yellow glance flicked sidelong at him, then back to the gilt-trimmed ceiling, to the ocean of humanity swirling around the refreshment tables at the far end of the room.
‘As is longevity,’ returned Ysidro. ‘Each time, I delude myself that I have beheld the limit of money wasted by rulers in praise of their own glory, yet I am humbled anew. ’Tis enough to make one believe there is a God.’ And he moved, like a slim impeccable specter in black and white, ahead of Asher into the enormous hall.
‘At least I won’t be called upon tonight to confirm some would-be adept’s visions of fairies at the bottom of her garden,’ murmured Asher as he followed in the vampire’s wake. ‘Which seems to be part of the job, if one lectures in Folklore . . . Not to speak of being dragged to seances by that imbecile cousin of Lydia’s, who regards me as the local expert on things that go bump in the night. I didn’t think there were this many True Believers to be found in any European city . . .’
‘As I say, ’tis only that you lack three centuries’ experience in the matter.’
‘Nor do I want it,’ replied Asher firmly, and received – to his surprise – one of Ysidro’s fleeting, unexpectedly human smiles.
‘It has its compensations.’
Asher checked his steps, halfway across the acres of crowded parquet that separated the doors from the buffet: ‘Are they real?’
Ysidro turned back. Around them, ladies in satin gowns cut to the nipples – in the fashion of St Petersburg – and wan-looking gentlemen in evening dress or, in some cases, extravagant silk versions of ‘the raiment of the people’, chatted at the top of their lungs in French or Russian about apports, apparitions, ectoplasmic manifestations, or railway shares . . .
‘Are what real?’
‘The fairies at the bottom of the garden. I’ve studied accounts of them going back to classical times without ever for a single instant believing that any had actually been seen – precisely as I studied accounts of vampires.’
‘The difference being,’ said Ysidro, ‘that vampires are not supernatural. We are merely rare, and intelligent enough – for the most part – to keep hidden from the eyes of our far-more-numerous prey. Regarding the fairies at the bottom of the garden, I have on the subject no more than any man or woman in this extremely noisy room: an opinion. Which is, that while I can not deny that some persons may actually have seen elemental spirits, even as some persons may have held converse with ghosts, I deeply doubt that all those who claim such experiences have actually had more than delusions.’
Asher grinned again at the phrasing of the statement. ‘Have you ever seen fairies?’
‘Would they make themselves visible to a vampire?’
Ysidro turned away, and Asher reflected, Touché. And touched, in the pocket of his extremely American tuxedo-style jacket, the letter from Lydia that had been waiting for him earlier that evening on his return from Lady Irene’s. Then he squared up his shoulders and reminded himself that everyone in the room was an effete superstition-ridden non-Protestant and he was an American, by God, and the match of any bunch of sniveling Russkis.
He strode to the reception line and was introduced to his hostesses, the Prince of Montenegro’s twin daughters, who had both married cousins of the Tsar; they were dark-eyed, elegant women of roughly his own age, dressed with a lavishness that Englishwomen reserved for Court presentations. Prince Razumovsky managed to appear, like a smiling green-uniformed genie, just as Asher reached the front of the line, and he added a few words praising Mr Plummer’s open-mindedness and large holdings in shipping and packing-house stocks. This guaranteed Asher a steady stream of company for the evening: aristocrats – male and female – bored with the ‘stifling conventions’ of the Orthodox Church and eager to ‘explore the realms that so-called modern science has claimed do not exist’; pasty, intense scions of the vast class of professional bureaucrats who for centuries had administered the Russian Empire, brimming over with love for ‘the real Russia, the true Russia of the villages, which understands its own heart’; charlatans – native, foreign, or of totally indeterminate nationality – who gripped Asher’s elbow or shoulder, as if to draw him by force through the Gate of Enlightenment, and gazed into his eyes, saying, ‘I can see you are a seeker after Truth . . .’
And I can see YOU are about to pick my pocket.
He wondered if any of these individuals had battened upon Ysidro, and with what result.
In the cab on the way to the palace, after he had briefed his companion on the names of doctors he was to listen for, he had brought up the subject of Count Golenischev: ‘Is there a chance we’ll encounter him tonight?’
‘I doubt it.’ Elegant in evening dress, Ysidro had folded his gloved hands, like an ivory statue against the lights of the Embankment.
‘And his rival for mastery? Prince Dargomyzhsky?’
‘I think had it been Dargomyzhsky whom Lady Irene saw, Golenischev would have named him, if only to cause him grief. Therefore I assume that the Prince was also at this opera ball on the night of the Obolenskys’ affair. Golenischev is vain – foolish, too, particularly in his choice of fledglings – yet, to remain master at all, he must have learned that we are safe only so long as we are invisible. These people here tonight, above all, are the ones no vampire in his right mind would speak to: people who both believe that a vampire could exist and possess sufficient social standing to gain a hearing from the powerful. It is only our good fortune,’ Ysidro had added drily, ‘that no one believes them.’
Indeed, once within the hall, Asher was not surprised that Ysidro became, if not literally invisible, at least profoundly unseen. Was this, he wondered, because the vampire was not quite capable of making his scarred face look completely human? Or did he simply wish to avoid the conversation of four thousand people who talked of nothing but the mysterious rain of fish that had fallen on Olneyville, Rhode Island, in May of 1900, or of whether ‘star jelly’ (whatever that was) was extraterrestrial or supernatural in origin? Four women and one man told Asher about the ghosts in their houses. An earnest-looking woman in her sixties wearing diamonds that could easily have purchased New College and the souls of everyone employed there held Asher’s hands in hers and told him about the fairies she had seen at the bottom of her garden. Asher achieved his gravest expression and exclaimed, ‘You don’t say!’
And three people, herded in his direction at various times in the evening by Prince Razumovsky, told him all about Spontaneous Human Combustion. ‘That woman in France in the 1700s, now, she was only one out of many, stretching back to Biblical accounts!’ asserted an earnest dark-eyed woman whom Asher guessed – from the estimated cost of her dress and jewels – to be the wife or sister of an upper-level bureaucrat in one of the Ministries. ‘Science conspires – positively conspires! – to keep these things from us, Mr Plummer, for fear of creating a panic. But I myself have heard – from a dear friend whose word can be entirely trusted! – of an actual case that a friend of his was acquainted with, in Kiev . . .’
‘It’s true,’ boomed a stubby little gentleman with round heavy-lensed spectacles, like a slightly overfed gnome. He – in common with a number of the men present, though Asher had noticed that the genuinely Theosophically-minded guests tended to be women – had chosen to wear, not formal evening-dress of white tie and tailcoat, but ‘the raiment of the people’: i.e. a loose blouse such as the peasant men wore, baggy trousers, and boots, the difference being that ‘the people’, in their desolate villages, generally didn’t have their blouses and trousers tailored for them out of heavy Chinese silk.
‘It is as much as my reputation at the University would be worth, were I to write up all I have found,’ went on the gnome, gripping Asher’s sleeve in a way that hinted at the flight of his former auditors and wagging a finger in his face. ‘Yet evidence points definitively to the truth of such accounts. Not in India or Mexico, mind you, but here in Petersburg! Only this past September, in Little Samsonievsky Court, the dvornik of one of those tenement buildings found a charred heap of ashes in one of his rooms, burned so hotly that the whole of a human body was consumed, save for the shoes . . .’
‘There was a rash of such happenings,’ broke in the bureaucrat’s wife, ‘four or five, in those horrible little streets around the Kresky Prison and the train station. And always the same! The oily yellow deposits on the walls, the blue smoke in the air . . .’
‘You don’t say!’ exclaimed Asher, switching to English from the sixth-form French in which he had been laboriously addressing his informants.
‘There were other such burnings – or findings of burned bodies, with no sign of combustible materials – between August and October, all about St Petersburg,’ added the gnome, poking Asher’s waistcoat with a stumpy forefinger. ‘Now, scientists would tell you that these were all in the Vyborg-side – the most appalling slums in Petersburg, Monsieur Plummer – and that the poor are all much addicted to the consumption of vodka. Ergo, these were all poor drunkards whose clothes had been soaked with the stuff and who had lit themselves on fire smoking American cigarettes. But, I ask you, all of them? I have heard at least seven different accounts . . . Is it reasonable that seven people – one of them a young girl, to judge by the size and style of her shoes . . . shoes, moreover, not such as a factory girl would wear – seven of them, would all soak themselves in enough vodka to consume not only the flesh but the bones as well?’
‘But what does it mean?’ asked Asher.
‘They are signs of the End.’ The bureaucrat’s wife spoke with a trace of indignation in her voice, as if Asher surely had no need to ask. ‘Signs of the coming of the Antichrist—’
‘Oh, nonsense!’ retorted the gnome, instantly defensive. ‘Great God, woman, have you learned nothing about the ageless cycles through which this universe passes?’ He turned back to Asher, face ablaze with eagerness. ‘It is mere proof that the universe is entering a Realm within the Abyss of Eons wherein the boundaries between the natural and supernatural world shift and grow indistinct. We of the Circle of Astral Light have found arcane hints at such things in ancient writings, which cannot mean anything else! Entities from other Realms—’
‘Can you persist in clinging to Science,’ demanded the woman, ‘with evidence of the Day of Judgment – of fire raining from Heaven with the sounding of the First Trumpet of the Seventh Seal – staring you in the face? Can you be so blind?’
Asher stepped back out of the conversation – both other participants had apparently forgotten his existence already – and a cool thin voice at his elbow said, ‘It was not Little Samsonievsky Court, but Samsonievsky Alley . . . and, so far as I can determine, all those seven accounts can be traced back to only one.’
Asher turned to meet pale eyes behind heavy spectacles, a gray little man who reminded him indefinably of Count Golenischev’s cold-faced fledgling. Prince Razumovsky, hovering behind him, lifted his eyebrows, but this signal wasn’t necessary. Okhrana – Secret Police – emanated from the little gray gentleman like the clanging of a warning bell. Asher immediately became as American as possible, bunched his eyebrows together and exclaimed with naive eagerness, ‘You sound like you know a lot about it, Mr—’
‘Zudanievsky,’ Razumovsky introduced. ‘Gospodin Alois Zudanievsky, Mr Jules Plummer, of Chicago—’
‘Mighty pleased to meet you, sir.’ Asher shook hands like a pump handle.
‘His Excellency tells me you seek information about the phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion.’ Curiosity flickered in Zudanievsky’s winter-colored eyes. Asher was familiar with the expression, from having worn it himself, and with just that caution about letting too much interest show. And why would this person be seeking information about that?
Asher nodded. ‘There’s so much hearsay, and this-person-I-talked-to-said-this, and when you get to the bottom of it, it all happened where nobody could verify anything. And I’m looking for an actual case. An actual event.’
‘Are you a journalist, Mr Plummer?’
‘No.’ He rubbed the side of his nose. ‘Fact is, Mr Zudanievsky, the man I’m looking for – for personal reasons . . .’ He made a gesture, as if shooing those reasons aside. ‘One of the few times I had a conversation with him when he wasn’t lying – or I don’t think he was lying – was when he spoke of such an event having happened to his sister, this past fall. He seemed to think there was a plot of some kind, but I don’t know the nature of it.’
‘He said his name was Orloff,’ said Asher gruffly, mindful that the first thing Zudanievsky was going to do was check the police report he’d submitted. ‘I’ve found out since that was a lie. But I had reason to think he came here to Petersburg.’
‘I would be extremely grateful,’ put in Razumovsky, ‘for any help that you – or your Bureau – could extend to my friend Plummer in his inquiries.’
Zudanievsky inclined his head to the Prince in a bow that was almost burlesque. ‘Such assistance as I can give will be my pleasure, Excellency.’ Even in formal dress he looked gray, like a dust-colored spider; his face was the face of the man, Asher realized, that he himself had quit the Department rather than become. The man who will do whatever his government requires of him, without asking why, and not even take pleasure in it.
‘Do you know the Bureau Headquarters, on Kronverkskiy Prospect? Across from the Fortress . . . If you would give this to them –’ Zudanievsky produced his card – ‘and ask to see me at . . . one o’clock tomorrow? I will show you what we have.’
Asher presented the policeman with a card of his own, even as one of the twin Grand Duchesses clasped him by the arm and haled him away to introduce to a spiritualist who was collecting funds to establish an Institute for Research into the Supernatural in Chicago – an exercise in its way more trying than the conversation with Zudanievsky, since Zudanievsky hadn’t asked him anything about that city, which Asher had never visited in his life. Supper was served at midnight in a nearby hall – Lenten fare of caviar and Norway salmon, and a thousand sorts of mushrooms and pickles – and, in another hall, chairs had been set up before a grand piano played by a young man of extraordinary talent to whose efforts barely a third of those present actually listened. In addition to conversation, it seemed to Asher that there was a great deal of flirting going on, far more openly than would be the case in London. (‘Dearest, in the middle of the day? With her husband, of all people?’)
He drifted from group to group, vexed with the necessity of keeping his ears open for gossip rather than for the music. For King and Country, McAliester would have said, damn him . . . He asked names, dropped hints, mentioned a cousin who was a specialist in diseases of the blood – and mentally sifted endless rivers of persiflage infinitely less interesting to him than the entertainment that his conversational partners so totally ignored. He reminded himself that the Kaiser was seeking to enroll a vampire in some fashion in his arsenal of weapons . . . and that the American he was supposed to be wouldn’t have been able to tell a Debussy concerto from ‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River’.
But most of what he heard concerned the more prominent table-tappers and spirit-summoners then operating in St Petersburg, including one whom he recognized as having been exposed as a fraud in London. He listened with assumed fascination to accounts of people who had disappeared in plain sight of crowds – though not generally in cities where it was possible to investigate thoroughly – or of objects apported from distant locations by spirit mediums, including bona-fide sparrows’ nests that had miraculously, but not provably, originated in China . . . Not to speak of assignations, contretemps, affaires and alliances of an altogether less exalted nature . . .
And in the middle of an account from the Grand Duchess Anastasia herself, of a giant wheel of light seen by the crew of a Swedish fishing-vessel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean only the previous year, past Her Highness’s shoulder he saw a face that he knew.
Ice water could not have doused him so chillingly.
I’ve seen that man in Berlin . . .
Rissler, his name had been. A young man, tall, stooped and colorless, with prying discontent in his blue eyes . . . It was the way he stood and his bitter expression, as much as anything else, that had brought him back to Asher’s mind. He’d seen him come and go half a dozen times from the Auswärtiges Amt in the Wilhelmstrasse; a clerk, Asher recalled. He had only known his name because he made it his habit to know the names and faces of everyone connected with the Foreign Service. One simply never knew.
Asher excused himself to the Grand Duchess, followed the German clerk’s lean, drooping form as he made his way down the length of the hall with a small plate of caviar and toast points in one hand, a glass of champagne in the other.
First assignment abroad? He hadn’t been one of the men assigned to running foreign agents, at least not in 1896 he hadn’t. Even now, he didn’t have an experienced agent’s walk or manner – he hadn’t even made an effort to alter his appearance, still wearing his flaccid mutton-chop whiskers and anemic mustache. Did those idiots in the Wilhelstrasse really think nobody noticed what the lesser clerks looked like?
So there must be something only he could do – perhaps he was the only one who spoke Russian or knew what star jelly was.
With all the gossips and assignees flirting and chatting along the sides of the hall among the ostentatious golden pillars, it was a simple matter to follow him down the hall, and remain out of sight . ‘Dear Monsieur Plummer—’ A slim hand in an eighteen-button kid glove fastened itself to his elbow. ‘You really must permit me to introduce you to one of our most devoted seekers after truth! Madame Anna Vyrubova, Monsieur Plummer of Chicago—’
Asher bowed to the other Grand Duchess – the Grand Duchess Militsa was the one with the emeralds and the Grand Duchess Anastasia wore the rubies – and to the round-faced, plump little blonde woman she had in tow, keeping his eye on the retreating mutton chops. Fortunately, Rissler – or whatever he was calling himself here – was tall . . .
‘Chicago!’ Madame Vyrubova squealed, clasped plump hands in an ecstasy of delight. ‘All the way here from the United States!’ She seized Asher’s fingers like an excited schoolgirl. ‘How do you like Petersburg, cher Monsieur?’
‘Excuse me, Highness,’ said Asher with a bow and a glance towards Rissler, who had reached his goal: a large and handsome gentleman, whose dark hair and close-trimmed beard were streaked with white. ‘But could you tell me who that gentleman might be over there? The one whose sinister minion is handing him the champagne?’
Both women looked. ‘Oh, my dear Mr Plummer.’ Madame Vyrubova dimpled mightily. ‘Dr Benedict Theiss! You must indeed possess Second Sight! “Sinister minion” is precisely how I would describe Monsieur Texel! Because one sees in his eyes, you know – dreadful, shifty eyes! – that whatever he says, he hasn’t the slightest belief in dear Dr Theiss’s theories about the deeper powers of the World Soul . . .’
‘He is a German,’ remarked the Duchess dismissively – sparing Asher the trouble of surreptitiously double-checking Lydia’s list for the name. In any case he remembered it clearly, and the address, on the Samsonievsky Prospect, the main avenue of the Vyborg-side.
‘Now, don’t speak of Germans in that horrid superior tone of yours, Militsa! Dr Theiss is a German, and he has a mind most open to the influences of the Unseen worlds. A veritable exile, Monsieur Plummer,’ the little woman sighed. ‘A tragic case, indeed. I quite weep when I think of it . . . Though I do weep very easily, Mr Plummer. All my friends say that I am too sensitive. He was a young man, you know, when that horrible Bismarck swallowed up his country into that awful German Empire of theirs . . . He left, rather than be ruled from Berlin, and never went back. And Bavaria still is a separate country, you know, Militsa! So Dr Theiss isn’t really a German! He does such unselfish good, you know,’ she added, turning back to Asher and clasping his hand, ‘working with the poor in the slums!’
‘That is true,’ the Grand Duchess allowed, her distaste at the man’s birthplace melting into a forgiving smile. ‘Shall I introduce you, Monsieur Plummer? I fear you’ll find our Annushka exaggerates his belief. Benedict is a scholar of folklore, but, I fear, a sad skeptic. These scientists! They cannot truly give themselves, as one must, in childlike faith . . . Or perhaps the overdevelopment of the cranial nerves blinds the Inner Eye to True Sight . . . Indeed, it might be simply that his clinic devours all of his energy and time. It is, as Annushka says, tragic.’
‘I’d be honored,’ said Asher. ‘Always ready to hear what a skeptic has to say – I have to wonder about any argument that can’t stand light shed on it from both sides.’
‘Exactly what I always say!’ cried Anna triumphantly, bouncing on tiptoes like a child. ‘One must keep an open mind . . . Oh, excuse us just one moment, Monsieur, there’s General Saltykov-Scherensky wanting to . . . We shall be back . . .’
Asher, who had been to enough diplomatic receptions to know that any hostess was completely incapable of making it ten feet without being interrupted or sidetracked, melted into the crowd.
‘Dr Benedict Theiss.’ Ysidro materialized at Asher’s elbow, as Asher himself stepped into the niche formed by the gilt-sheathed pillars along the wall. ‘And none other from Mistress Asher’s list, so far as I can tell, here tonight.’
‘It may be that none of the others operates a charity clinic in need of donations.’ Asher angled his head slightly to look around the pillar at the expatriate Bavarian. ‘The man with him was a clerk at the German Foreign Office in Berlin.’
‘Was he, indeed?’ The vampire regarded doctor and minion like a snake contemplating crickets. ‘It may be that a visit to this clinic is indicated, to see what is there to be seen. Will you speak with him?’
‘I think not tonight,’ said Asher. ‘I want to hear what Razumovsky has to say about him, and possibly one of my friends in the Department here, before I let him see me to recognize me again.’
‘Then I shall await you outside. Whether or not he is the man Irene saw, the odds that you shall find two German scientists accompanied by agents of the Auswärtiges Amt here tonight are in the order of nine hundred and fifty thousand to one.’
‘I’ll bid goodnight to Prince Razumovsky.’
‘He seems to be much taken with an extremely handsome Baroness, but have it as you will. I doubt he will notice if you disappear.’
Ysidro moved off. Asher looked around for the Prince – who did indeed seem to be making what might in another man be interpreted as a proposal of marriage to a slender dark woman in a dramatic pink gown on the other side of the hall – and was starting in their direction when a hand was laid on his arm.
Asher had smelled the man coming before he was stopped by him; he turned, startled and repelled. Even among the occasional non-bathers that one found in any large gathering – and Asher had learned that aristocratic rank was no guarantee against personal eccentricity in that area – this man stood out. His ‘raiment of the people’ was costly silk, but the hand on Asher’s arm was dirty, the nails long and broken; the face he found himself looking into, a peasant’s bearded face.
Except for the eyes.
‘Who is that?’ The man’s coarse peasant Russian was as startling in this upper-class milieu as his goatish smell. ‘That one that you spoke to?’
Asher shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Keep from him.’ The peasant turned his head, pale eyes – gray and mad – following through the crowd although Asher himself could see no sign of Ysidro. ‘Flee him. Do you not see what he is? Darkness burns around him, as light burns around the faces of saints.’
‘And have you seen,’ asked Asher, ‘the faces of saints?’
The peasant looked back at him, startled, and his eyes were human again. Maybe they always had been. Then, framed by the long greasy mane of his hair, he broke into a grin. ‘We have all seen the faces of saints, my friend.’
Close by, Annushka Vyrubova paused in conversation with two uniformed Guards officers, caught sight of them, and smiled in adoration. ‘Father Gregory—’ Arms outstretched, she hurried towards them in a frou-frou of dowdy lilac silk.
‘Watch yourself, my friend.’ Father Gregory made the sign of the Cross before Asher’s face. ‘Go with God’s blessing. For I promise you, if you see that one again you will need it. That is one who cannot endure the light of day.’