Blood Maidens (Page 9)


Ysidro was waiting on the platform of Warsaw Station when Asher arrived at half-past eleven. Wordlessly, he slipped a luggage claim-ticket into his hand in passing and vanished at once into the little knots of students and workers, functionaries and their wives, who milled about in the cold, talking, checking tickets, giving last-minute assurances of love to Cousin Volodya in Bologoe . . .

Outside the station, murky fog-banks drifted in the streets, thick with the smells of sewage, coal smoke, and the sea.

The vampire did not enter their first-class compartment until the train had passed beyond the ghastly ring of wooden tenements, unpaved streets, and mephitic factories that encircled St Petersburg’s exquisite eighteenth-century heart, and was on its way south through the darkness. It crossed Asher’s mind that Ysidro – Count Golenischev’s reassurances of support notwithstanding – might feel himself to be Abroad as well.

As he set up the tiny ivory pieces of his traveling chess-set, the Spaniard listened with interest to Asher’s account of his visit to the Okhrana. ‘No wonder Golenischev’s fledglings are uneasy,’ he murmured, when Asher had finished. ‘We – the vampire kind – find profoundly unsettling these rumors that fly among the poor. Such panic can stir up the police and waken street mobs and riots. ’Tis no mischance that none of the Paris nest survived the Revolution. Even without open violence, tales of that kind cause the poor to watch one another more closely and to take greater care of themselves. When this killer of whores whom the newspapers called the Ripper walked London’s streets, tavern keepers and dock hands took it into their heads that he must have a “lair” somewhere, and groups of them developed an unhealthy interest in the cellars of empty buildings, and town houses whose inhabitants did not show themselves by day.’

Asher turned from the pitch-black abyss of the window. ‘I wonder the lot of you didn’t do something about Jolly Jack, then.’

‘We did.’ Ysidro adjusted the frosted-glass shade of the lamp over the compartment’s narrow table and moved his knight. He always, Asher was amused to note, chose the black figures: Spanish, stained ivory, and extremely old. ‘What these disappearing children – or for that matter the burning of this vampire girl whom Golenischev did not think to mention to me – have to do with our German scientist’s friend, I know not. Yet it is clear to me that all is not – stable – in Petersburg.’

‘Could vampires exist in Petersburg that Golenischev doesn’t know about?’

‘Only if they did not hunt. And if one is not going to hunt, why risk travel to a different city?’

‘To see a doctor?’ Asher moved his knight out of the trap Ysidro was closing upon it and perceived, in a single irritated glance, that in the next three moves he would be checkmated and there wasn’t a single thing he could do about it.

‘Golenischev informs me that the Master of Moscow is one of the old nobility,’ Ysidro went on. ‘Molchanov – an old long-beard, Golenischev calls him. These days he lets his acres to bailiffs to farm and himself dwells in Moscow, though he will return for a week, or perhaps two, to his ancestral lands, sleeping in the old chapel there and never showing himself to his tenants, nor laying hand upon them, Golenischev says. Will you have tea?’ A bearded little man with a crooked back, old enough to be Asher’s father, had tapped at the door, bearing a tray of steaming glasses. Ysidro gave him two roubles extra and received the man’s blessing with unmoved countenance.

‘They do not know that their Baron is the same man for whom their fathers worked, and their grandfathers,’ the vampire went on, when the man had gone. ‘Yet he has paid to bring a schoolteacher to the estate and gives generous dowries for the young girls in his villages when they wed.’

‘Kind of him.’ Asher doggedly shifted a pawn. He was coming to know some of his companion’s pet moves and, more, coming to learn how the vampire played, with the whole of the game and all its myriad possibilities existing in his mind before his thin fingers touched the first piece.

‘Were Baron Molchanov kind, I doubt he would have remained Master of Moscow through the French invasion and the burning of the city. Yet he knows that which apparently eluded your Mr Stoker in his so-interesting novel: that a vampire lord who preys upon his own peasants is doomed to swift discovery and death. ’Tis difficult for our kind to hide in the countryside. Even Golenischev, who has never set foot upon his own acres, takes care to keep his peasants content and in his debt, lest he should need the services of one to pick up a wagonload of boxes from the station one day, while the sun is high, and leave them in a dark room at the man’s town palace without asking too many questions. Check.’

Asher thrust down the urge to throw the nearest bishop at his companion’s head.

Towards morning Ysidro disappeared, leaving Asher to get a few hours of sleep as the train rolled through the dreary blackness of an endless plain. As they left the sea the clouds thinned, and waning moonlight painted the bulbous domes of country churches, the snow thick upon the fields. For a long while, it seemed, a single lamplit window burned in the distance – what are they doing awake at this hour? The train stopped at Tver and Klin, low wooden buildings dimly descried through the gloom and an occasional bearded peasant moving about the frozen streets as light struggled unwillingly into the sky. Waking, Asher took another cup of tea and turned in his mind all that Ysidro had ever told him of the Undead and all he had learned of them in his studies of folklore and legend. What could the Kaiser offer a vampire that would counterbalance the terrible risks of setting off organized hunts for their lairs by a population convinced of their existence?

’Tis almost unheard of for a vampire to kill another vampire, Ysidro had said . . . yet Asher felt almost certain that even as the vampires of London had attempted to kill him, Asher, rather than have him assist Ysidro in searching for the creature that was killing them, so they might very well kill a vampire who threatened to break the secrecy that was their strongest protection.

Was that what had happened last autumn? Had the girl, whoever she had been, come to Petersburg with Theiss?

Yet would they not have killed Theiss, rather than the girl, if they’d found out?

He reached in his pocket for Lydia’s letter, but brought out, instead, the one he had found in Lady Irene’s house.

Lady, I received your letter . . .

Why had she not gone back to London after the Master of Petersburg had died?

Had she been ashamed to face Ysidro? Or had it only been that she could find none to accompany her on the journey?

Had her memories of England – wind and meadowlarks on the high downs, and the sound of Oxford church-bells – rusted like the strings of her harp? Withered like the bindings of the mathematics books in her library, until there had been nothing left but the hunt?

Dearest Simon, forgive me my long silence . . . a letter filled with the minutiae of ballet and opera, scandal and politics, creeps towards its conclusion on my secretaire . . .

Would he miss them, those letters filled with the minutiae of ballet and opera, scandal and politics? Asher recalled how Ysidro had thrust thick packets of his replies to those letters into the pockets of his coat and cloak . . . To burn? To reread? Would one who had lost all capacity for caring – one for whom all the world had reduced itself to the passion of the hunt – care about what he had written to one who now would no longer write?

Asher closed his eyes . . . and woke sharply with the jostle of the carriage wheels over the points, a woman’s voice in the corridor complaining, ‘—and if that coachman of his is drunk again I swear I shall tell him to send the man packing!’ in bad provincial French.

Ysidro had given Asher an address on the Ragojskaia Zastava, on the outskirts of Moscow: a small town-house, built early in the century upon what looked like the ruins of a convent and set in its own walled grounds. Stone lions the size of sheepdogs guarded its little gate, and Asher half-expected to see the hairy shadow of the Dvorovoi – the Slavic spirit of the yard – lurking in the dusk. If Ysidro did, in fact, find himself in need of a translator, Asher guessed that the Moscow vampires would sooner come to an isolated structure than to a terraced house or a rented flat. Still, when the Spanish vampire emerged from his locked, double-lidded trunk with fall of darkness, bathed and changed clothes and disappeared into the night, Asher unpacked those dry net-wrapped swags of wild rose and wild garlic with which he’d filled his luggage and made the bedroom that overlooked the gate as secure as he could, given who he was dealing with. He slipped his little silver sleeve-knife into its holster and satisfied himself that it would drop with a twitch of his wrist into his hand.

The day help had left a meal of soup and pirozhki. Asher ate it by lamplight – Moscow’s gas-company mains did not extend so far, and of course there was nothing of electricity here – in the breakfast room that overlooked the barren garden and wondered if the first buds were on the willow branches in his own garden at home and what Lydia was doing tonight. Despite the snow, and the crushing cold, the days were lengthening, and he knew with what swiftness the spring would come.

His body had settled very quickly back into the strange rhythms of Abroad: sleep a few hours here, a few hours there; quick wakefulness; eat when and how he could, with little sense of hunger between-times. He carried up the small samovar to his room and made tea by the dim amber gloom of the lamp. Then he turned the flame down, so that only the little burner of the samovar pierced the dark like a tiny unilluminating star, and sat beside the bedroom window, gazing into the night.

He was still wide awake at two when he saw them. Nearly a dozen, they came at a sort of drifting run from the direction of the tram stop, pale faces like ghosts where the clouds cleared a little and the moonlight broke through.

He hadn’t thought there would be so many. None of them bothered with the gate. They sprang to the top of the wall like cats: a couple of students, like the ill-fated Ippo and Marya in Petersburg; a couple of well-dressed gentlemen and youthful-looking ladies in dark gowns of another year, silken skirts billowing when they sprang down into the garden. Long hair floated loose like cloud rack. Even the attenuated glimmer of the cloud-crossed stars made their eyes seem to glow.

Ysidro must have come through the gate, though Asher hadn’t seen him do so . . . Can even the other vampires follow, when he moves?

He stood on the graveled walk, diminutive beside a heavy-shouldered man in countrified tweeds, like a character out of Tolstoy, bearded and bear-like without seeming in the slightest bit clumsy. A young woman stood between them, ivory pale in a colorless satin gown, her long hair loose upon her shoulders like a schoolgirl, speaking to each in turn. Evidently Ysidro had found a translator, and that, Asher thought, was just as well. Curious as he was about the Master of Moscow’s patterns of speech and inflection – as a philologist Asher would have given almost anything to hear how Russian had been spoken in the seventeenth century – but he knew the knowledge would have cost him his life.

So he watched from his window, and now and then Molchanov would turn his shaggy head and glance in his direction, as if he knew perfectly well that Ysidro couldn’t have gotten to St Petersburg, and then to Moscow, from London without a human escort . . .

And knew perfectly well that humans were nosy, even to the point of peeking through the doors of Hell.

The clock downstairs chimed the quarter hour. As if they heard it, the vampires swarmed the garden wall again, leaping down – cloaks, hair, dresses billowing – on the outside. The moon struggled like a drowning swimmer from the clouds, and Asher saw the garden was empty. The Master of Moscow, the pale beautiful woman, Ysidro . . . They were all gone. He waited, listening for footfalls he knew he wouldn’t hear, until outside the door of his room he heard Ysidro say, ‘James?’

Only then did he get to his feet and remove the protective swags of garlic and whitethorn, stow them in his suitcase again, and open the door.

Asher realized he was shaking. The fire in the stove had burned to ashes, unnoticed.

‘You are cold.’ The vampire crossed to the samovar, filled a silver-mounted glass with steaming tea.

Asher turned up the lamp. ‘Just glad you found someone else to talk to our friends.’

‘As am I.’ Ysidro knelt to open the stove’s shining grate, added a log and stirred the fire, its orange light painting the illusion of life on his thin features. ‘I was invited to go hunting, in what remained of the night – would I dine with them, they asked. I replied I would sup when I returned to Petersburg. This satisfied them, though Molchanov suggested that he could find me an escort back, should harm befall you here.’

Asher stood by the window for a time, the tea glass cradled in his hands. Guessing what would have happened, had Ysidro gone hunting with the fledglings, while Molchanov remained behind. Now that the vampires were gone, he found he could not stop shivering. ‘What did you tell him?’

‘That I had need of one who could speak both English and Russian. He cautioned me against employing a man with brains: Get a good, stupid peasant, he said – through the lovely Xenia, who is certainly stupid enough to suit him to the ground. They’re loyal, and they don’t ask questions. You can’t trust a city man. Like weasels, they always think they know best. I did not ask him how he came to know what weasels think. I never met a master who did not consider himself more intelligent than any man living.’ Ysidro brought up a chair to the stove and, after a glance at Asher, silently, brought from the window the chair in which Asher had watched and placed it by the open grate as well.

Then he sat and folded his long, white hands. ‘I have now learnt all that gossip can tell me of the Petersburg vampires,’ he said. ‘No inconsiderable matter, given the fewness of hours in the night that can actually be spent in the hunt and the length of years in which human minds – whom immortality renders no less human – have nothing to occupy themselves with except gossip.’

Asher hid a smile and took the chair opposite him, as if he had been a living friend. ‘You behold me agog.’

‘I fear you will be less so,’ responded the vampire politely, ‘when you learn that you and I will be obliged to continue our travels together through Europe for some weeks yet. It appears that the rivalry between Count Golenischev and his brother-fledgling Prince Dargomyzhsky – both fledglings of the same master who made the Lady Irene vampire – has been complicated still further by the presence of an interloper, a vampire who came to Petersburg about two years ago. For years the Count and the Prince each have attempted to gain Irene’s support, but she kept apart from them both – regarding both as imbeciles, an evaluation I find it difficult to contest. The interloper – whom Molchanov simply referred to as a German, meaning in Old Russian simply a foreigner – he called you one, too – sides now with one, now with the other—’

‘And now with the actual Germans?’

‘That, neither Molchanov nor any of his fledglings could say. They do not, you understand, travel abroad themselves. Like all Muscovites they regard Moscow as the heart and center of the physical and spiritual universe, and Petersburg as a sort of corrupt excrescence, necessary only to maintain a contact with the tradesmen of the West. And it is a long distance,’ he added. ‘A vampire alone might be able to travel from Moscow to Petersburg in two days in midwinter, could he find secure lodging in Bologoe. Myself, I would not care to try. Petersburg has always had a very small population of the Undead, and its masters have tended to be those who had not the strength to establish themselves elsewhere.’

‘And this vampire girl who perished in the autumn?’

‘He knew nothing of her. The Lady Xenia – our fair translator, who corresponds with Golenischev – assured me that Golenischev knew nothing of her either. Had he done so, he would have attempted to recruit her, not sought to do her harm; doubtless Dargomyzhsky would have as well.’

‘Either they’re all lying . . .’ Asher set his tea glass on the raised stone of the hearth on which the stove stood. ‘Or what? What could the Kaiser’s government offer a vampire? Power? I’d think that given the weakness of the local master, in St Petersburg that wouldn’t be much of a consideration. Food? God knows, the city has the biggest slums this side of India, and even the families of those who disappear don’t dare ask questions. What else is there?’

‘That,’ Ysidro replied, ‘is what we must travel to discover. To Prague – to Warsaw – to Köln – to Frankfurt – to Munich . . . and to Berlin.’

Mrs L.M. Asher

Holywell Street, Oxford

Uncle William’s stocks prospering no danger there stop yet your husband has fallen dangerously ill advise come at once stop contact Isaacson in Petersburg stop

Don Simon