7

When we arrived in the great hall, soaked and shivering, Cosmina was waiting.

“Theodora! You are wet through. Come at once and change into dry things,” she ordered. She led me out of the room and I looked back at Florian. He was even wetter than I, for he had tried to shield me from the worst of the storm, and I regretted stopping to rest upon the staircase. He stared after us, his face a study in misery. I called my thanks to him, and for a brief moment, a faint smile warmed his face before he turned away, sunk again into his sadness.

Cosmina hurried me on, pausing at the foot of the tower. She nodded towards the little wooden door I had passed so many times.

“We will hang your wet things here,” she instructed, leading the way.

I stepped inside, catching my breath at the sudden gust of cold air. The room was unfurnished, the cold stone walls and floors unrelieved by tapestry or carpets. The only light came from the arrow slits in the walls, for there were no proper windows. A curious stone bench was set into one wall.

“This was the castle garderobe in medieval times,” Cosmina explained.

She did not elaborate, but I knew that this room would have served two purposes when the castle was first built. A garderobe was a privy, but sometime in the mists of the past some enterprising soul had discovered that the resulting odours discouraged moth and the most valuable clothes would have been hung there as well. The iron hooks for the garments were still in place, albeit crumbling to rust. And the stone bench that ran along one wall was still partially open to the valley below, fashioned so that it would be easily sluiced clean from time to time, as could the floor itself through a wide square drain in the wall. I peered down the disgusting flue to see the same river view I enjoyed from my window. The garderobe was vastly colder than the rest of the castle, and I shivered as Cosmina pulled off my sodden shawls.

She draped them over the stoutest of the hooks and turned to me. “I will bring your dress to dry here as well. Your things would dry faster in your room, but here they will not spoil the carpet or be in your way. Your shoes we will stuff with paper and place upon the hearth.”

I agreed, too cold and woebegone to care. She guided me to my room and waited for my gown before she helped me into bed and drew the heavy coverlets over me. The fire had already been built up, and Cosmina promised to send Tereza with a fresh pot of tea to warm me.

“You needn’t come downstairs to dine if you feel too poorly,” she told me, putting an anxious hand to my brow. “You are not starting a fever, at least not yet.”

I smiled at her from my comfortable downy nest. “I have been caught in more rainstorms than I care to remember. Once I am warm again, I will be quite well.”

Her brow was still furrowed. “I hope so. I would feel very responsible if you were to fall ill.”

“Why? The fault would be my own for tarrying too long at Dr. Frankopan’s,” I said, feeling warmer and rather drowsy.

Her worry seemed to ease a little. “You enjoy his company, do you not? Such a kindly old man.”

“Very,” I agreed. “He was telling me of poor Madame Popa and her troubles with her husband and then we talked of strigoi.”

Cosmina’s brows lifted slightly. “Strigoi? That is hardly a topic for pleasant teatime conversation. I hope he did not frighten you.”

“No more than you did when we were girls at school together,” I teased.

She looked a little abashed and began to fidget with my coverlet, tucking it more securely. “I do not remember what I said.” She hesitated, biting at her lip, before bursting out, “I would not have you afraid here, Theodora. Whatever this place is, whatever walks here, I could not bear for you to leave. Not yet.”

She seized my hand and gave it a quick kiss, pressing it to her cheek before she rose abruptly. “I will leave you to rest now. Forget what you have been told this day, and dream of pleasant things.”

I longed to ask her what she meant, but before I could do so, she left me, taking away my wet gown, and I felt a delicious, creeping lassitude overtake me and I surrendered to the arms of Morpheus.

Dinner that night seemed a tense affair-most likely from the storm, which howled and thrashed about the castle-and I was not sorry to retire. As had become his custom, the count collected me after a little while and we retreated to his grandfather’s workroom. A clammy chill had settled upon the castle, but he had built a fire upon the hearth, burning tree roots instead of logs. They were twisted, monstrous things, and I sat upon a cushion near the hearth to watch them burn. The roots looked like claws, reaching out in supplication, wicked and unearthly, beckoning. Tycho had followed us and the great dog stretched out next to me, his head upon my lap. I petted him slowly, from the coarse fur of his neck to the silken ears that twitched at my touch.

The count lounged upon a sofa he had unearthed, a comfortable affair in green velvet. He smoked a pipe as we sat in silence, and I sniffed at the air, taking in the sweetly pungent odour of ripe fruit. It was unlike any pipe I had seen before, and I noticed the ritual for lighting it was quite intricate.

After a long while, he saw that I watched him. “It is opium. Would you care to smoke?”

I shook my head regretfully. I would have liked to have smoked the opium, to have taken that sweet smoke into my mouth and held it on my tongue. But I knew opium dulled the senses, and it had become my practise to memorise every moment spent in his company. He meant to leave in another month’s time and I wanted to commit every feeling, every sensation, every cell of him to memory.

He shrugged and tamped out the pipe. “You do not approve of my pleasures?”

“It is not my place to judge such things.”

He gave a low rumble of laughter. “So primly she replies, all prickles like a pretty Scottish hedgehog. And yet you are not so conventional as all that, are you? There is more to you than meets the eye, or I do not know women.”

“I am not conventional in all of my attitudes,” I allowed. “Propriety dictates I ought not to spend my evenings in your company, and yet I do.”

“And to what do you owe such freethinking? Did your grandfather encourage you?”

I felt Tycho give a low snore under my palm. “He did, after a fashion. Mine was a unique education. I was left to my own devices for many years before I went to school, and he gave me free rein to read anything I fancied in his library. I educated myself from whatever books he brought into the house. I read philosophy, comparative religion, history, languages. And from all of these I formed the foundation of my philosophy as a writer, that man is a universal creature.”

“In what way?”

I warmed to my theme. “All men, no matter their station or situation, desire to be fed and sheltered. Beyond that, there is a need for self-determination, to work according to one’s interests and talents and to shape one’s own destiny.”

“Ah, the good American pursuit of happiness,” he said.

“You think me na?ve.”

“No, I think the Americans na?ve. You presume that all men are happier for being permitted to decide their own fate. I have seen differently. The average peasant in this valley is happy enough to have his roof and his bed and his full belly, you are right. But beyond that, if each was permitted to please himself according to his own desires rather than what was best for the community, what would happen? Suppose the blacksmith’s son decides to become a poet. Shall we shoe our horses with sonnets?”

“I should not expect a man born to feudalism to see the merit in another system,” I replied evenly.

“Indeed you should not. I am a feudalist-if there is indeed such a word-because I was born to be, just as the peasant in the field is born to be.”

“And a man may not better himself, ought not to change his station with hard work and education?”

“God forbid!” he said roundly. “Miss Lestrange, it is perfectly well for the Americans to have embraced such ideals. They had a new country to build. Without an aristocracy of birth, they had to establish one of merit. But we Europeans have an older way-a better way-that has served us for two millennia. Would you stage a revolution to make us other than we are?”

“No, but neither would I wish to be what I am told I ought to be, a proper wife and mother,” I said slowly. “It was the notion that I could decide what my own life should be that prompted me to leave Edinburgh, to make my own way in the world upon the strength of my pen.”

He gave me a slow, warm smile. “You claim not to be a bluestocking, and yet I have discussed far weightier subjects with you than I have ever discussed with any other woman. I find I can speak to you as easily as I do a man, a singular thing in my world, Miss Lestrange.”

“Are there no ladies of your acquaintance with whom you may converse about such things? No educated women from your own circle? I understood Parisiennes to be most highly opinionated and articulate.”

“Not the ones who dance at the Paris Opera,” he said, his eyes bright with mischief. “Serious women have always given me dyspepsia, but you are different. Somehow you say the most appalling things and I am intrigued rather than horrified.”

“Do you not cultivate the friendship of thinking women?”

“What need have I for a woman who thinks? Ah, the hedgehog bristles are out again. I have insulted your sex and you will take up cudgels on behalf of your sisters! And yet, you must reflect, I keep low company. The women of my acquaintance are giddy, silly creatures, but not bad ones. They talk only of clothes and jewels, and it is enough to drive a thinking man quite mad, and yet I have come to expect that when I marry, it will be just such a creature, a woman who cares only for the next pleasure.”

“I thought your betrothal was already decided,” I remarked carefully. We had not spoken of Cosmina, I had not dared. But I longed to know the depth of his regard for her, whether he held her in esteem or affection.

He stared at me, his grey eyes wide and guileless. “Do you refer to Cosmina? Ah, schoolgirl gossip, of course. Let me guess, the two of you whispered into your pillows about me after the schoolmistresses doused the lamps. Yes, it is my mother’s fondest wish that I marry Cosmina. But it will not happen,” he said decisively. “There is no power in Heaven or on earth that could move me upon this point.”

“Then you are not to be married,” I said slowly.

“No, Miss Lestrange. I am as free and unattached as you.”

There was something in his voice, some subtle shade of meaning I could not quite interpret.

“But how do you know I am unattached?” I asked, slanting him a mischievous glance. He need not know that I had refused Charles absolutely. Even Charles expected me to capitulate eventually.

He looked suddenly more alert and not at all pleased.

“You have a connection? Ah, I can see by the pretty way you preen yourself that you do. You are a woman of great personal attraction and a remarkable mind. It was stupid of me to assume you were not attached. Tell me about the man. Is he dull and predictable? Of course he is. I expect he wears brown suits and always eats his peas before his mutton and will not take port after dinner because it upsets his digestion,” he finished nastily.

I struggled against the rising mirth. “Do not be so hard upon Charles. He is a good man, and unlike most gentlemen, he would not object to keeping a novelist for a wife.”

“Oh, Charles! Its name is Charles, how utterly predictable,” the count rejoined. “But you do not deny my description of him, so I will take it as accurate. No, do not attempt to defend him. It will only make me more determined to dislike him. Come, Miss Lestrange, what are you thinking? Surely you would not be happy with such a man.”

“I could be as happy with him as you could be with such a wife as you have described. It would be a very long life with nothing to discuss between you but the colour of the new drawing room curtains,” I countered.

He shrugged casually, but his expression was one of pleasure. He was enjoying sparring with me, and for my part, I had seldom felt so exhilarated as I did in that small room with the cosy fire and the storm raging without.

The count parried my last thrust. “Any pleasures a wife does not bring to the marriage can-and perhaps ought to-be found elsewhere. A wife is necessary only to provide an heir.”

“I begin to think that you despise my sex,” I told him.

He sat up straight, his hand to his heart, the heavy silver ring upon his forefinger gleaming in the firelight. Tycho raised his head, then gave a snuff and dropped it to my lap again. “You wound me, Miss Lestrange! Nothing could be further from the truth. I adore women. I have studied them as deeply as old Dr. Frankopan has studied his little pills and potions. And like a true scholar and proper scientist I have even developed a Linnaean taxonomy for my seductions.”

“I tremble to ask.”

“It is quite simple,” he said, warming to his theme. His eyes were alight with enthusiasm, his lips turned upward in amusement. “I have sampled women the world over, from courtesans to countesses, and I can tell you there are only three types of women who matter in a man’s life-those he marries, those he seduces and those he takes. I have only to tailor my behaviour to become whatever the lady in question wants me to be and I am assured of success.”

The air felt heavy within my lungs and something inexplicable began to rush in my blood. The conversation had turned inappropriate, wildly so, and yet I could not, would not put an end to it.

“And how do you determine which women are which?”

“Birth and breeding, of course. One marries a woman whose blood is impeccable because one needs her only for the creation of an heir. Nothing matters except that her blood is sound and her pedigree is good. If she has beauty and money, all to the better, but I have money enough of my own and beauty can be found elsewhere. Nothing but blood matters in a wife.”

“And those you take?”

“The least diverting of the lot. Serving wenches, maids, village maidens, chorus girls. Any commerce with them is a simple matter of business, an exchange of services for coin. They may want it in the form of a carriage or a new gown, but make no mistake, the courtesan is no different than the innkeeper’s comely daughter who tumbles any traveller in the barn for a piece of copper. Their commodity is pleasure and they are in trade, as surely as if they hung a shingle above the door. They may interest one for a night, perhaps longer if they are clever and well-trained. But in the end, they are tradesmen, and one cannot love a butcher for the way he cleaves the meat, can one?”

He stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankle and folding his arms behind his head in a posture of ease. He was indeed enjoying himself, and for the first time I wondered if it was at my expense.

“The third class of women, those one seduces, these are by far the most interesting. Unlike the wives and the whores, these cannot be bought. They can only be persuaded, and that is the test of any gentleman’s skill. They are ladies, but barely so. The governess, the poor relation, the novice nun.”

“Surely not!” I interjected, but he held up a hand.

“I am merely quoting from the memoirs of Casanova, not personal experience,” he said seriously. “But make no mistake, when one is not certain of the outcome, victory is much the sweeter. A man values what he has worked for, Miss Lestrange. Consider the hunt. When I ride out, do I aim for the cow chewing placidly in the field? I do not, and yet why not? It would provide good meat for my table. It would be fat and tender and keep me well fed. But I despise it because there is no sport.”

He drew back his legs and sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees, fixing me with the intensity of his gaze. “But when I have been in the saddle all day, legs astride a fast horse, riding hard, sweating and cursing with the wind in my face, jumping hurdles and risking my very neck, I never know until the very last moment if I am going to be successful, if I will achieve my aim and bring home my trophy. I have pursued something wild and beautiful that will sustain and feed me and I am more a man for having taken it on its own ground.”

My mouth felt suddenly dry and I swallowed hard. “You have indeed given this a great deal of thought.”

“I take my pleasures very seriously,” he said, leaning closer still. I caught the scent of him then. The smell of opium clung to him, not unpleasant, but primeval, like windfallen fruit on freshly turned earth. He studied my face, his gaze moving slowly from eyes to lips, lingering there as if to memorise every contour. It was a challenge of sorts or perhaps an invitation.

“Indeed,” I murmured. “And if you assume a facade of manners calculated to please the lady, I wonder you are not unmasked and seen for what you truly are.”

He shrugged, the wide shoulders moving easily beneath the excellent tailoring of his coat. “I am never with a woman long enough for her to penetrate my pretty deceits. She sees what she wants to see, and if she glimpses something underneath, she persuades herself she was mistaken. By the time she has come to realise her error, I have withdrawn from the field to meditate upon the pleasure of my spoils and embark upon a new siege.”

He leaned nearer still. I wondered if he meant to kiss me then, but even as I parted my lips, he rose and lifted a finger in command, whether to Tycho or to me, I could not say.

“Stay there. I have something for you.”

He disappeared down the little staircase and returned a moment later bearing a slender volume.

“Have you read this?” he asked, proferring the book.

I took it from him, admiring the beautiful gilt tooling on the soft scarlet morocco cover. I traced the title. Les Fleurs du mal. “Baudelaire!” I exclaimed. “I wanted to read this, but Charles said it was not available in Edinburgh.”

A small, knowing smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “I suspect your gentleman was trying to protect you. I believe he would say it is not suitable for ladies.”

“That is precisely what he said,” I admitted, thinking of the row Charles and I had had over the poems. The book had been published the previous year to both acclaim and outrage. “However did you find a copy? I heard they were seized by the French government.”

He shrugged. “I know the poet.”

I stared at him, openmouthed. “You know Baudelaire? What is he like?”

“Read the poems,” he urged. “They will tell you all you wish to know about the man.”

“I will.” I pressed the book to my chest. “Thank you for the loan of it. I will be most careful.”

“What a prim schoolgirl you are!” he exclaimed, but he smiled to take the sting from his words. “Besides, it is a gift.”

“I could not possibly,” I began, but he waved my words away.

“We have discussed my guiding philosophy, Miss Lestrange. I do nothing which does not give me pleasure. It pleases me to give you the book more than it would please me to keep it. It is a trifle.”

“Still, it was kind of you. Thank you.”

He nodded slowly, a peculiarly Eastern gesture of acknowledgement that seemed unique to the Carpathians. For all his Parisian sophistication, there was still much of the Transylvanian about him.

I rose then and he walked me to my door, Tycho following quietly behind.

“I will begin it tonight,” I told him, brandishing the slender volume.

“I shall be eager to hear your thoughts,” he said, touching my hand briefly to his lips.

“Do you mean to educate me?” I asked en badinage.

“No,” he said seriously, “to corrupt you.”

And with that he turned on his heel and left me.

Tereza had come in my absence to prepare the room for the night. A hot brick wrapped in flannel had been tucked at the foot of my bed, and a mug of warmed milk, laced with honey and spices, had been placed upon my bed table. I drank it off, feeling pleasantly drowsy and content and reflecting that there is nothing quite like a warm bed in a cold room to make one feel all is right with the world.

Burrowed far down into the soft mattress, I opened the book at random and my eyes fell upon “The Revenant.”

Like angels with wild beast’s eyes

I shall return to your bedroom

And silently glide toward you

With the shadows of the night;

And, dark beauty, I shall give you

Kisses cold as the moon

And the caresses of a snake

That crawls around a grave.

When the livid morning comes,

You’ll find my place empty,

And it will be cold there till night.

I wish to hold sway over

Your life and youth by fear,

As others do by tenderness.

I longed to read more, but as I reached the last line, I slid regretfully into sleep. I dreamt, for hours it seemed, and in my dreams I walked the corridors of the castle, searching for something. But all of the doors were locked, and though I pushed hard against them and beat the door with my fists, none of them would yield. I began to weep and felt something soft against my cheek, taking up my tears. Hot breath rolled across my skin, and I bolted awake, suddenly aware that I was not alone in my room.

All that remained of the fire was cold grey ash; the candle had long since burned to nothing. But something was there, breathing in the darkness. It had touched me, and as I put out my hand, I felt rough fur.

I scrambled backwards across the bed. I groped on the bed table for a lucifer match and struck it. The light flared, illuminating two great yellow, lamplike eyes glowing in the shadows. I gasped and dropped the match, nearly setting the bed alight. I beat the single flame with my hand, and once more the room was black as pitch. I heard a snuffling sort of sound, and suddenly cursed myself for a fool. It was Tycho, doubtless accustomed to roaming about the castle at night.

I reached for another match and struck it, intending to scold the miscreant for frightening me so and show him to the door. But when the flame flared up, I saw that I was quite alone. The dog had gone, shown himself out, I thought with a smile.

But the smile faded when I realised that the door was still firmly bolted. The dog had disappeared into the shadows without a trace.

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