Upon quitting the crypt, the somber company parted ways in silence. Cosmina clung to me, moving from Florian’s ministrations to mine, and I saw her to her bedchamber, clucking under my breath when I realised the room had not been readied.

“Never mind,” I said brightly. “I will play the maidservant tonight. Let me just poke up the fire a little. There, is that not lovely? It’s blazing very high now. And here is a brick to warm your bed.” I bustled about the room, keeping up a continuous flow of chatter, as much to distract her as myself. I could not yet bear to think on what we had done that night.

Cosmina sat shivering in one of the low armchairs by the fire. I hung her nightdress by the hearth to warm it, and when the brick was hot, I wrapped it carefully in flannel and slid it between the sheets of her bed.

“Come,” I said gently. “It is time to change into your nightdress.”

She obeyed, quiescent as a child. She said nothing, but as I slipped the nightdress over her head, I saw tears falling to her cheeks. I took a handkerchief from my pocket.

“There now, it is all over, and you mustn’t weep. You will spot your nightdress,” I said in a teasing voice.

She did not smile, but she did blink away her tears with a great, shuddering breath.

Just then Frau Graben appeared with a mug of hot, spiced milk and her apologies.

“There has been much to do,” she said, flapping about like a farmyard goose.

“Do not trouble yourself, Frau Graben,” I replied. “I am happy to attend to Cosmina.”

“I will leave your milk in your room, Fraulein,” she said, bobbing both of us a swift ungainly curtsey.

I brushed Cosmina’s hair and began to plait it. “Drink your milk,” I urged. “You will feel better. Perhaps Frau Graben has been thoughtful enough to add a little something to help you sleep.”

“Brandy,” she said, wrinkling her nose a little after the first sip.

“Then you must finish it all,” I instructed.

Cosmina leaned her head against my arm. “You are so good to take care of me. I am your hostess. It is I who should be attending you.”

I took up a bit of pretty ribbon and tied a bow at the bottom of the plait. “You suffered a great shock.”

“I never swoon,” she said, almost angrily. “Why were you able to keep your composure? You looked so very cool and unruffled.”

“Did I? I was trembling like a leaf,” I confessed. “I suppose it is easier for me because I am an outsider. I did not know Count Bogdan.”

“Perhaps it is because I remember the last time only too well,” she said. She took another sip of her milk, but this time she did not pull a face.

“The last time?”

She nodded. “After Count Mircea, the present count’s grandfather, died. Stories of strigoi spread through the valley, and Count Bogdan insisted it was his father, roaming the countryside as one undead. He demanded we perform the same ceremony upon Count Mircea.”

I slipped to my knees beside her. “You were there? Cosmina, you must have been a child.”

“Thirteen,” she said soberly. “I had nightmares for more than a year after. That was the night Andrei left this place, vowing never to return. To watch his father despoil his beloved grandfather was too much for him. For all his sins, Andrei is not so vicious as his father,” she added with an odd, blank look.

“Count Bogdan finished the ceremony.”

“And you watched it all?” I was outraged, appalled. Cosmina had always been a sensitive soul. I could not imagine the cruelty of a man who would force a child to witness such a thing.

“Watch it? No, I was part of it. We all were.” Her eyes took on a faraway look and she began to tell the tale in a flat, emotionless voice. “We began at midnight, just as we did tonight. Dr. Frankopan was there, and the Amsels. Even Frau Graben. Count Bogdan presided, and you could see from the gleam in his eye that he relished every moment of it. We did not circle widdershins thrice as we did tonight. Count Bogdan made us circle for hours, chanting all the while. I thought I should collapse from the exhaustion of it, but he prodded me to keep going. The countess and I clung to each other to stay on our feet. At last he ordered us to stop and gave us basil to dip into holy water. When we had shaken it over the corpse of poor Count Mircea, Count Bogdan stripped him to the waist and took up his knife. And then he cut out his father’s heart. He lifted it into the air, watching as it splashed crimson drops onto the body. Then he dropped it into the fire. When it was burned to ash, he mixed the ash with what was left of the holy water. And one by one we drank of it.”

I covered my face with my hands.

“Only Andrei refused. He threw the glass to the floor and cursed his father. He left, and it was only afterwards, when we had washed the taste of ashes from our mouths, that we realised he had gone from the castle forever.”

I dropped my hands and Cosmina seemed to recollect herself to the present. “It is a terrible thing that Count Bogdan made us do. But it is more terrible that Andrei did not finish it. Bogdan will kill us all if he is not stopped.”

I took her hands in mine, not surprised to find that hers were cold as death. “He was a cruel and vicious man, but you must know he is dead and gone and cannot harm you now.”

She smiled then, a pitying smile, as a mother might give a child. “You do not understand such things, Theodora. We are not like other folk. There are terrors here you cannot imagine.”

She bent to embrace me. “I will not let harm come to you. You must believe me.”

I returned her embrace, then rose to help her into bed. She settled into the pillows, sighing at the warmth of the brick at her feet.

“You have been so kind to me. The sister I never had,” she murmured drowsily.

I thought of the terrible deeds she had witnessed in the crypt, of the odd upbringing she must have had at the hands of such a monstrous man, and I felt a rush of affection and pity for her.

Impulsively, I pressed a kiss to her cool white brow.

“I do not think I can sleep just yet. Would you read to me, Theodora?”

“Of course,” I told her. I moved to the little bookshelf that stood against the wall and paused, studying the titles. Charles would have approved, I thought wryly. The shelf was neatly organised and stocked with appropriate volumes, including the entire canon of Jane Austen. I started to reach for Northanger Abbey, but in the end I decided against it on the grounds it was too atmospheric and chose Emma instead. Something about the silly heroine and her meddlesome ways appealed to me, and I thought the tone just right for banishing the gloomy atmosphere of the castle and helping Cosmina to sleep.

But as I approached the bed, Cosmina drew a slender volume from beneath her pillow. “This one, I think,” she told me, her voice a whisper. She looked like a guilty child caught conspiring to steal a sweet, and I turned the book over in my hand.

“But this is a translation of Gautier’s La morte amoureuse,” I protested. It was a bloodthirsty tale, both seductive and ghoulish.

“You know it?”

“Of course. Vampires were a pet theme of my grandfather’s researches.”

She darted me a furtive look. “I know I should not read such things. They are sensational and unfeminine. But I find it comforting to know that others believe.”

I started to remonstrate with her, then fell silent. I could not imagine the horrors she had suffered at growing up in such a place, nor could I appreciate where comfort might be found for a person who had. If she wanted to read sensational stories, it was no affair of mine.

Reluctantly, I opened the book.

“‘Brother, you ask me if I have ever loved,’” I began. I had not passed three lines when Cosmina gave a sigh and settled deeper into the pillows.

I read on, detailing the misadventures of the poor priest Romauld and his tragic love for the revenant courtesan Clarimonda. The room grew darker as the candles began to gutter, extinguishing themselves one by one. At length, only the fire and a single candle remained. Cosmina closed her eyes and began to sink deeper still. I dropped my voice and read more slowly, pausing at the words of the priest Serapion as he counsels the doomed Romauld.

“‘I am bound to warn you that you have one foot over the abyss. Beware lest you fall in. Satan has a long arm, and tombs are not always faithful.’”

I paused, and realised Cosmina was slumbering deeply. I used a bit of ribbon to mark the page and left the book beside her bed. I had no desire to read it on my own. The last candle was burning low as I took it up to light my way to my room. I crept from her chamber, cupping a hand over the feeble light. The passage was dark and chill, for there were no windows here to admit the light of the moon. There were odd gusts of cold wind in the castle corridors, doubtless the result of ancient stone walls in need of repointing, I told myself firmly. Still, my hands trembled upon the brave little flame, and I murmured under my breath, coaxing it to stay alight.

Suddenly, a malignant draught gusted, blowing out my candle and plunging the passage into darkness. My heart slammed painfully against my ribs and I could scarcely breathe in the stifling darkness. What had seemed chilly a moment before was now airless and dank, a suffocating blanket of blackness.

Without thinking, I began to recite an “Ave Maria” under my breath, marking off each syllable with a tentative step towards my room. So long as the prayer held out, so did my courage. I had not thought myself religious, and yet the words sprang instantly to my lips when I was in the grip of terror.

I had just formed the words “mortus nostrae” when my foot scraped against the stout oak of my door. I pushed it open and almost fell inside, so eager was I to put the door between myself and the darkness behind me. I bolted the door and nearly collapsed with relief at the sight of the warm, cosy chamber. Frau Graben must have lit the fire, for the hearth glowed its welcome. I carefully relit the candle and fixed it into a holder next to the bed, letting it illuminate the darkest corner of the room.

It was but the work of a minute to wash myself and don the nightdress folded neatly on the bed. I had only the one, and I noticed a rent near the hem had been mended with small, tidy stitches. It had been washed as well and smelled of basil, and as I lifted it, a few sprigs of the herb fell from its folds. I placed them carefully under my pillow but did not retire at once to sleep. I was far too overwrought by the dark deeds of that night to sleep easily. I sat up for a long while thinking about the count. The night sky was bright with moonlight and thick with cloud, a wretched night to practise the astronomer’s arts. He would not be on the observatory walk this night, I mused. Perhaps he was sitting before the fire, sunk deep into opium dreams. I could not blame him if he were. I should have craved oblivion too if I carried the burden of his memories. I longed to go to him, to offer him whatever feeble comforts I could. But I was painfully aware of how badly I had already behaved with him, and although I regretted nothing, I picked my way carefully on the stony path to sin.

At length I settled with my writing things to send a letter to Anna. It was another letter of omission, for there was so much I could not speak of. How could I explain to her the horrors I had seen here, the monsters that I had been told walked abroad? Even as I wrote, the pleasant, homely sounds of pen scratching upon paper and fire falling to ash were underscored by the howling of wolves in the depths of the black forest beneath my window. How could I explain to my sweet, prosaic sister that evil stalked this place in the shape of undead men? And how could I confess to her the feelings I harboured for the count? Anna was a loyal creature, selfless and devoted. She would never understand the emotion that gnawed at me. It was not love, I could not give it so pretty a name. It was something far more elemental, a hunger I could neither name nor understand. I craved him, as Tantalus had craved water, and the more time I spent with him, the greater my thirst.

I could well imagine Anna’s reply if I did unburden myself to her. She would counsel flight, swift and immediate. She would advise me to leave this place and never come back, to banish the man from my thoughts and bolt the door against my longing. She would scold me for permitting a few stolen kisses to overcome my scruples and my resolve. She would not judge me for my feelings, for hers was a romantic soul and she knew the strange and unassailable power of the human heart. But she would fault me for not resisting the pull of this man, and I could not find the words that would make her understand.

Our grandfather had taken us once-long before he became reluctant to leave his house-to call upon an eccentric friend of his who practised mesmerism. The gentleman cast his influence over the maidservant who brought our tea, causing her to warble like a nightingale and reveal her inmost secrets. It had been a cruel trick, I thought, and the girl ended scarlet-faced in embarrassment, clutching the coin her master gave her in recompense. And now I was that girl, powerless over some insidious power I could neither resist or refuse. I would do whatever he asked of me, I reflected coolly, and my detachment surprised me. I was not angry that it should be so, or fearful of what would become of me. With his power over me came the certainty that however I acted, whatever passed between us was fated to be and I was content to have it so.

I could not explain my willingness to succumb to his influence. It did not settle with my character or my intellect, and I wondered that I did not oppose it more. Had the setting, beautiful and sinister, overcome my scruples? Was the dark magic of the Carpathians exerting its invidious influence? Was it simply that, denied proper companionship for so long, I wanted to belong to another? Or were the romantic trappings of the situation merely masking my own baser desires? I had not thought myself a carnal creature, but I imagined scandalous things when I was in the count’s company and worse when I was not. I had touched his hands, the broad palms and the long, elegant fingers, hands meant to stroke and caress. I had kissed his mouth, the firm lips that tasted of fruit and smoke. I had felt the length of him pressed against me, muscle and sinew, hard where I was soft, and I thought of the flesh beneath. He was a testament to the tailor’s art, his clothes beautifully made and perfectly fitted to his form. I had seen the fabric ride the hard thigh and muscled calf to the long, straight expanse of his back and the breadth of his shoulders, the places I longed to cling to. I thought of the firmly marked brows and the small cleft in his chin, as if nature herself had best marked where to kiss him.

And yet none of these parts could account for the attraction of the man himself. For all his physical charms and his elegant ways, it was his mind that captivated me most. He was a creature of mystery, with fathomless secrets, as enigmatic as a Grecian sphinx, a conundrum no mere mortal could hope to solve. He was so strange a combination of superstition and sophistry, of courtliness and cunning, I could not make him out, and the riddle of him teased at me, pricking my curiosity to obsession. I could tarry here a thousand years and still never know the truth of him, I thought in exultation. It was maddening, for he had begun to intrude upon my thoughts to an alarming degree. But to sit and think about him, to untangle the Gordian knot of his character, was a glorious diversion. He was providing me with inspiration for my work and for my own imagination, and it occurred to me that this man could well provide me the greatest adventure I would ever know.

But how could I confess such truths to Anna when I could scarcely own them myself? How could I possibly explain to her all that I had seen? I knew her well. Anna would counsel me to fly at once, leaving behind the horrors I had beheld. She would not, could not, comprehend the power of the count’s allure. And there were no words to make her understand.

Frustrated, I gave her a tepid and bloodless account of my stay at the castle, speaking of nothing important and concealing all that was. I gave my love to my nieces and nephews and I asked after William’s parishioners. I wrote about Anna’s garden, sympathising with her complaints about the wind that had stripped her prize rosebush. And I mentioned the dreary weather, omitting the wolves and the strange deeds we had done in the crypt. It was a lie, that letter, and I did not like to send it. But I knew Anna would worry if I did not, and so I wrote on, telling her a little about my book and that I meant, for the first time, to see my work published under my own name. I felt reckless in this place, a new boldness had crept into my work and my feelings, or perhaps it has always been there and merely wanted the spur of independence to urge it on. Whatever the cause, I felt myself-the passive girl Anna had known and loved-slipping further away the longer I tarried in Transylvania, and I wondered as I signed it with a flourish if I had said too much. There was nothing to alarm her until the last, when I spoke forthrightly of my ambitions, and the tone was so unaccustomed, I worried it would distress her. But I could no more unpen the words than I could have held back the tides. I knew Anna cherished hopes that my sojourn abroad would teach me tractability and that I would come home to marry Charles and settle to comfortable domesticity. I hated that my plans must divide us, but it seemed better she understand me now than later. With a wistful sense of having burnt my boats, I sealed the letter and put it aside for the post.

It was very late then, and my bones ached with fatigue as I brushed out my hair and plaited it firmly, tying the ends with little silken bows as I had done for Cosmina. I blew out the candle and slipped into bed, falling almost instantly into a deep, restless sleep.

Not surprisingly, I dreamt of the count. We were in the garden, but a different garden, for this one was beautiful and well tended, with soft grassy lawns and great knots of flowering plants and fruit trees, their branches heavy with lush fruit that bowed them nearly to the ground. We trod a narrow path in this garden, admiring the beauties of it. And then he reached for me, gently at first. But then he became urgent in his attentions, demanding even, and I wound myself about him as he buried his hands in my hair, his mouth hot against my neck. And although I had never yet spoken it aloud, I murmured his name, trailing a whisper over his skin.

Suddenly, with that drifting awareness that only the dreamer has, I was awake and yet not so. The man in my arms stilled and withdrew from me. I made a small sound of protest, but he put a finger to my lips, a finger cold as the grave. I slid back into slumber and if I dreamt again, I did not remember it when I wakened.

I awoke the next morning with a heavy head, my limbs leaden. I stretched slowly to waken myself, and as I did, I realised the careful, tidy plaits in my hair were undone. My hair was loose about my shoulders, the ribbons scattered over my pillow. I stared at them as if they were phantoms, scraps of unreality. I put out a finger to touch one, half expecting it to dissolve into the thin grey air. But it was real enough and cold, cold as only silk can be when not warmed by contact with the flesh. I took it up and saw that it had been carefully unpicked. The knots had been undone from both of the ribbons, the hair unwoven.


Обращение к пользователям