15

If I was annoyed at having a chaperone, I did my best to conceal it. Charles was entirely capable of creating enough of a distraction that I should be forced to leave the castle, and it seemed a tremendous victory that I had been able to persuade him I should stay. He told me with a bland smile that he meant to spend the morning exploring the castle, and I left him with a feeling of sharp unease. I tried to settle to my work, but every time I lifted my pen, I thought of him falling into conversation with the count and my stomach gave a little churn as if I had just boarded a ship and not yet found my sea legs.

After a pleasant midday meal, Cosmina proposed a visit to the village. She wished to call upon Dr. Frankopan and suggested that Charles might like to see more of the valley. He accepted with alacrity, and it occurred to me that I had seldom seen Cosmina look quite so uncertain of herself. She had always been quieter than most of the girls of my acquaintance, but she had worn a mantle of self-possession. Now, as she looked at Charles, once or twice I detected a hesitancy. I wondered if she were perhaps forming a tendresse for him in spite of her protestations against men and marriage.

We ventured down to the village, and all the while Cosmina kept up a patter of entertaining narrative about the castle and its legends. Charles was intrigued; I had known him too long to mistake that intently arrested air. He was doubtless fitting Cosmina’s chatter into the conversation he and I had shared over breakfast, and it was with only the slightest touch of annoyance that I noted he helped her over the roughest going while leaving me to pick my own way down the Devil’s Staircase.

In the village, Cosmina pointed out to him the fresh improvements, and Charles surveyed it all with great interest.

“It seems as if the new count is making rather excellent progress,” he commented blandly. “Is he not here to oversee matters himself?”

I said nothing but bent swiftly to fuss with a bootlace. The less I said upon the subject of the count, the better. Charles pricked like a pointer every time his name was raised, and it seemed inevitable he would discover my feelings for the man himself. I only hoped such a revelation could be postponed until long after we had both quitted the place.

“Count Andrei does not often go abroad during the day,” Cosmina told him. “He prefers to keep more nocturnal hours.”

I rose to find Charles had turned to me, his brows lifted significantly. “Really? What a singular fellow.”

“Not at all,” I returned, rather too sharply. “He is by way of being an amateur astronomer. He could hardly practise the astronomical arts during the day, now could he?”

Cosmina cut in to point out the graveyard just then and Charles turned away, but his expression was speculative, and I chastened myself. I should have to be far more careful if I expected to keep my feelings for the count concealed.

We walked on to Dr. Frankopan’s little cottage in the woods, and I was pleased to find the old gentleman at home. We were greeted with great warmth, and when he discovered we had a visitor with us, his usual fuss became an outright furore.

“How do you do?” Charles asked politely.

“How wonderful, how wonderful! A Scotsman, I do not think I have ever met such a creature before,” he exclaimed, much to Charles’s chagrin. Like many educated Scots of English descent, Charles had taken pains to banish both Scottish colloquialisms and accent from his speech, although they did creep in from time to time.

I smiled behind my hand, and Charles glowered a little at me as we were hurried to comfortable chairs beside the fire while refreshments were sent for. Madame Popa served us with a sullen humour, and I was not sorry to see her leave. If Charles connected her with the tale I had told him of the man who had taken to the mountains as a wolf, he betrayed no sign of it.

Dr. Frankopan gestured towards the tea things with alacrity. “Ah! Today the good Frau Graben has sent me a wonderful apple tart made from the apples grown in the castle garden. Have you seen the garden yet, Mr. Beecroft? An astonishing thing to find a place of cultivation so high upon the mountain.”

“I have not. I have only just arrived last night,” Charles explained.

“Oh, you must see it, you must!” Dr. Frankopan advised. “Of course, it is not so tidy as it was in the old days, but there is still beauty there in the ruins. And you will see the little trees that produce the famous black apples.”

“Black apples?” Charles looked a trifle alarmed as he poked a fork cautiously into his slice of the tart.

“Only the skins,” I reassured him. “They are quite extraordinary-looking, small and purplish-black like plums. But the flesh is very white and sweet.”

These were the apples Cosmina and I had picked and I knew from experience that they were delicious, although not prepossessing in appearance.

“Like something out of a faery tale,” Charles said, giving me a significant look.

“Precisely, precisely!” Dr. Frankopan said happily. “The whole place is like something out of a faery tale. You will find much to interest you here, sir, if you are not averse to country pleasures.”

Charles strove for diplomacy. “I confess I am a man of the city, Dr. Frankopan, but I am determined to learn the error of my ways. I do already see it is a most remarkable place.”

“It is, it is,” Dr. Frankopan agreed.

With that we fell into conversation about the village and the valley and a little of life beyond, for Charles had the most recent news from Vienna, and the afternoon was one of the most pleasant I had passed since coming into Transylvania. It struck me as I watched them that Charles and Dr. Frankopan were similar men, holding several virtues in common. They both were kindly and worked hard. They were agreeable and decent and they both conducted themselves in such a manner as to help those they could.

It also struck me that they were both solicitous of Cosmina. When it became apparent that she was sitting in the draught from a poorly fitted window, Charles insisted upon changing his seat for hers, and more than once I caught Dr. Frankopan watching her with a little furrow of worry ploughed between his brows. He was still concerned for her health, I realised, and I wondered if there was something more seriously amiss with her than I had known. But she seemed stronger than she had the previous week, and every day her colour rose and she was able to walk further and with more purpose. Even now, roses bloomed in her cheeks, and I was glad of it.

Charles seemed to enjoy the afternoon as well, and as we departed, Dr. Frankopan pressed him with an invitation to come again, alone or in company, whenever he chose.

“I am an old bachelor, you will not disturb me,” he assured Charles.

“We are the pair of us old bachelors then,” Charles said rather too heartily.

We made our way back to the castle then in the waning afternoon light, the drooping sun casting long golden shadows over the valley, gilding the scene to a burnished tranquility. Cosmina drifted ahead, picking an armful of leaves to place in bowls, and Charles fell into step at my side.

“Well?” I asked. It was a testament to our long friendship that the single word was sufficient.

He paused, thinking. “I have finally realised what it puts me in mind of. Do you remember those curious children’s books we published last year? The metamorphoses books?”

I nodded. They were some of the most delightful books Charles had produced. Each had been crafted with clever turn-ups so that the turning of a page produced a feature that popped to life, a bird on the wing, a castle tower rising above a forest ridge.

“That is what this place reminds me of. A metamorphoses book. A turn of the page and something new and wonderful springs to life. Most unexpected,” he said, his voice dropping curiously.

And when he spoke, his eyes lingered on the graceful figure of Cosmina in the distance.

I was not jealous of Cosmina, I told myself firmly. It was absurd to place any importance whatsoever upon Charles’s apparent interest in her. There was no attachment; Cosmina’s antipathy would see to that. But it did not escape my notice that she managed to be just at hand to place herself next to Charles at dinner. And later, when the household adjourned to the library for quiet entertainments, Charles hurried to help her with the arrangement of her silhouette table.

“It is not often that I use the table,” she told him as he lit the candle and placed it opposite the screen according to her instructions. “But visitors here are so rare a pleasure, we try to commemorate the occasion with a silhouette, to bring pleasure to us in the lonely hours after they have gone. I thought I would cut one of you and one of Theodora, to remind us all of this night,” she finished, her colour becomingly pink.

Charles preened a little and seated himself on the other side of the screen from Cosmina and her sharp little scissors. She took up a piece of black paper and began to cut, her eyes darting between her work and the still shadow thrown upon the muslin.

Florian watched the interplay with a sullen air and began to work a mournful little melody upon the harpsichord until the countess called to him.

“Florian, my dear boy, play us something more cheerful. We have had enough of sorrowful things,” she commanded with a kindly smile.

He obeyed, spinning out a pretty tune that was so soft and coaxing, his mother began to nod over her needlework, and it was still possible to hear the gentle rustle of the fire and the heavy sleeping breaths of the dog settled upon the hearth rug.

Only the count seemed unaffected by the soothing music, for he took a chair close to mine, ostensibly to look over the castle guest book I had unearthed. I turned the pages slowly, reading over the spidery scrawls of ink, once black but now faded to pale brown upon the foxed pages.

But the count was not a man to be ignored, and as Cosmina and Charles fell into conversation, he spoke, his voice low and soft and pitched for my ears alone.

“It will never do.”

I puzzled over a rampant signature that scrolled over the better part of a page. A baroness of some sort, visiting from Buda-Pesth a quarter of a century ago. The castle had been a hospitable place then, for each page was filled with signatures of the great and good, and the further back I turned, the more exalted the names.

“What will never do?” I murmured. I had found an archduke, and just below, the illegitimate son of a pope.

“You and that fellow,” he said, darting his eyes at Charles almost imperceptibly. “It is absurd.”

“I do not understand you,” I said primly.

“Don’t you? Come to me when he is abed.”

I caught my breath at the brazenness of his command, but still I kept my eyes fixed firmly upon the decaying page before me.

“I shall not.”

“Do not hiss at me, my dear. I mean only to talk with you. It was an invitation to converse, nothing more.”

I dared a glance and was surprised to find his eyes alight, whether from amusement or malice, I could not say. He was an enigma to me, this curious nobleman from Transylvania. I could not say from one moment to the next what he believed, what he held dear, what he would not do. More than an enigma, he was a chameleon lizard, always changing his colours just when I had learnt his disguises.

But even such a man as this could not command me, I decided, summoning my tattered pride.

I opened my mouth to refuse him, but just then he put out a hand, barely touching my arm. “Please?” he asked.

He was humble, as I had seldom seen him, and I wondered if this was a fresh stratagem of his to throw me from my complacency.

“I cannot,” I said firmly. And to show that I meant it, I closed the book and rose to walk away.

Cosmina’s silhouette of Charles was a remarkable thing. It managed to convey the features of the man, but it captured something indefinable as well, some essential part of him that I would have thought unknowable without conversation and expressions. I looked at the flat shadow snipped from the ebony paper, and I saw the friend, the publisher, the erstwhile suitor. And something more. Cosmina had captured something rather dashing about him as well, and I realised this was how she saw him, not as the stiff and stuffy man of business, but as the congenial gentleman who had engaged her attention.

“It is very like,” I said finally, and Charles looked mightily pleased.

He gave way for me to take my turn behind the little screen, and I saw that the count had settled himself behind a chessboard. I had not seen it before; the pieces appeared very old and fashioned of marble, burnished to a sheen with long use. As I watched in some trepidation, the count invited Charles to a game and they began to play. All the while, Florian kept up his gentle melodies while his mother drowsed and the countess read, occasionally putting out a slippered foot to stroke Tycho’s back.

“What a pleasant man your friend Mr. Beecroft is,” Cosmina said softly as she began to cut the silhouette.

“Yes, he is rather.”

“Have you known him long?” I wished I could gauge the strength of her interest, but her expression was hid from me by the muslin screen.

“Years, actually. I must have met him when I was eleven, perhaps twelve. His family firm published my grandfather’s books, and his father and my grandfather were great friends. They were both of them Englishmen settled in Edinburgh, so they felt the kinship of living abroad, I think. When his father called, Charles and I were left to amuse ourselves in the corner while our elders talked.”

“And yet you never mentioned him at school. Curious.” Her tone was speculative, but I could hear the decisive snips of her scissors.

“I cannot think why I should have,” I told her honestly. “He was simply a person I knew. I only saw him once or twice each year until I came home from school and Grandfather fell ill. He called one day with some business or other for Grandfather and the poor old dear was asleep. Charles and I talked instead and he discovered I had written a few little stories. He asked to see them, and took them away to read. A week later he returned with an offer to see them published in a magazine, with an eye to grooming me to write a book.”

My recollection was true and the events innocent enough, and yet I felt as if I were a penitent, called upon by her confessor to recount her crimes. I glanced at the muslin screen, but Cosmina was nothing more than an alteration in the light to me-no form, only the suggestion of a presence. In contrast, I was clearly revealed to her, every inch of my profile and expression laid bare. I felt naked and exposed, and I disliked it.

“Are you almost finished?” I asked.

“Very nearly, my dear. Hold quite still. I am at the neck and it is rather tricky as your hair is so heavy just there. Still, it would be worse if you were wearing your necklace,” she added, and I started, realising that I had quite forgot to retrieve the beads from the workroom. I should have to go to the count for no other reason than to reclaim my property before Cosmina detected my foolishness.

“Oh!” she exclaimed suddenly, her voice a study in woe.

“What is the matter?” I said, my voice a trifle too sharp.

I rose from my chair to see what the trouble was. Cosmina sat, black paper in one hand, scissors in the other.

She looked at me in dismay. “You moved so quickly, you startled me and I have quite ruined it.”

She gestured towards her lap where the tiny black image of my head had fallen to her skirts, the neck as neatly cut as if by a guillotine’s blade.

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