'Vampires exist.' Dr Osric Millward swept his auditors with a dark gaze almost hungry in its brooding desperation that they should believe. 'I have seen them. In this city – in these streets – in this modern and progressive year of 1913. Is that so difficult to believe?' He pushed back the silver-shot raven forelock that fell on his high brow, stretched long fingers stained with ink and silver nitrate. 'Every civilization back to the beginning of time has spoken of them: men and women who prolong their existence after death by drinking the blood of the living. For centuries they've walked the streets of London, in the dark hours when law and reason sleep.'
'Yes, but if that's the case,' argued Lady Savenake, slipping her Pekinese a fragment of cracker liberally smeared with paté de Strasbourg, 'why don't we hear about more bled-dry corpses turning up in alleyways?'
Lydia Asher could have answered the question, but didn't. Completely aside from the fact that the vampires of the London nest knew who she was and where she could be found, Dr Millward – whose powerful baritone could stop every other conversation in a drawing room dead in its tracks – had prefaced his remarks on vampires with fifteen minutes on the subject of how the 'emanations' of the female reproductive system made it impossible for women's brains to grasp either the principles of logic or the 'masculine intuition' necessary for such disciplines as medicine or the law. She merely dropped another lump of sugar into her tea, and glanced across the drawing room at her cousin Emily, shyly accepting a plate of biscuits from Terence Winterson.
Since Lydia's Aunt Isobel had commanded Lydia to chaperone Emily to Lady Brightwell's tea in order to bring about precisely that encounter – Winterson's father was a baronet worth ten thousand a year – Lydia reflected that it was probably too early to flee.
'The vampire is a natural phenomenon,' Dr Millward insisted. 'Centuries of records prove this, to those with minds open to understand—'
'Couldn't the same be said of ghost stories?' protested Lady Ottmoor, turning her attention from the spring toilettes on display along Park Lane below the drawing-room windows. 'You're not going to tell us that Anne Boleyn really perambulates the Tower of London with her head tucked under her arm, are you?'
'But I've seen a ghost!' Young Lady Kentacre nearly bounced on her striped satin chair. 'Madame Rowena summoned the spirit of Marie Antoinette only last week! I saw her with my own eyes!'
Millward drew back as if her young Ladyship had spilled a slop bucket on his feet. 'Rubbish!' he boomed. 'This isn't some silly women's nonsense, of crystal balls and mysterious white figures playing the accordion! These are creatures that do murder in the dark—'
'And create others of their own kind from their victims,' added Edward Seabury, Dr Millward's (unpaid) secretary and young Lord Colwich's particular friend. His dark eyes were troubled and sad.
'There are more things in Heaven and Earth,' agreed Lord Colwich, 'than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and all that.' He nodded wisely – as if ruminating upon the originality of the remark – and went back to contemplating the platter of cucumber sandwiches, seed cakes and caviar being held before him by the footman. Aunt Isobel had hoped to bring Cousin Emily to the attention of this tall, powerfully built young aesthete (his father was the Earl of Crossford), before Lord Colwich's proposal, the previous week, to the daughter of an American millionaire. Aunt Lavinnia had observed that his lordship was in any case far more interested in Ned Seabury than in any of the maidens embarking, like Emily, on their 'season' that spring. ('As if Lord Crossford would have considered Emily anyway for his son,' Lavinnia had sniffed. 'Richard –' Lavinnia's brother, Isobel's husband, Emily's father and Lydia's sole maternal uncle – 'hasn't a penny over six thousand a year ...')
On the second of May, Lydia had received a letter from her aunt, informing her of these developments and of Isobel's subsequent attack of sciatica, and demanding Lydia's attendance in London to chaperone Emily in a revised assault upon the marriage market. With your husband out of the country you must be in quest of occupation ...
None of Lydia's aunts ever referred to James Asher by name, maintaining the fiction, after twelve years, that if they ignored so lowly a person as a lecturer in folklore and linguistics at New College, Oxford, he would eventually go away.
'I do apologize,' said Lady Brightwell, when Lydia and Cousin Emily took their leave. Her Ladyship glanced back into the drawing room, where Dr Millward was declaiming about the courage and dedication one needed in order to hunt the Undead, to the exclusion of every other attempt at conversation in the room. 'Noel brought him ...'
Lydia followed her nod, but to her myopic vision Noel Wredemere, Lord Colwich, was only a tall, stout blur in a gaudy green-and-yellow waistcoat, now deep in conversation with the graceful shape that could only be Ned Seabury. With Emily's departure, Dr Millward had seized upon the only other male in the room – the hapless Mr Winterson – and was regaling him with accounts of how to manufacture silver bullets in one's rented chambers.
'Honestly, one tries to oblige, but between that tedious professor of his and poor Ned Seabury tagging along ... How can he still wear his Eton tie, just as if he wasn't a clerk in some law firm or other!'
Thus Lydia's thoughts on the train back to Oxford that night – Dr Millward's assertions notwithstanding – were far more taken up with how she was going to finish her article on the possible medical uses for the newly discovered element 'radium' for the British Journal of Medicine in between taking Emily to fittings for her Court presentation gown, than she was with whatever undead entities might be stalking the streets of London in the dark hours when law and reason sleep.
She'd turned down her aunt's command to accompany Uncle Richard – Viscount Halfdene – and his family to the opera, and since it was Lydia who was paying for Emily's presentation gown there wasn't much Aunt Isobel could say. But there seemed to be no way of getting out of the masquerade ball at Wycliffe House on Saturday night – the eligible Mr Winterson would be there, after all. Aunt Lavinnia – with a daughter of her own to bring out this season – could not be relied upon. (Aunt Harriet, comfortably ensconced with a barrister husband in Maida Vale, was 'out of the question'.) Lydia only hoped that Aunt Isobel's sciatica would resolve itself quickly, though as Aunt Lavinnia had pointed out after dinner, it never had before. ('Mark my words, dearest, she'll have it the rest of the season: so if Emily "takes" she can claim credit for having planned her campaign, and if she ends up come August without being engaged it will be your fault.')
Lydia closed her eyes and leaned back against the tufted plush of her first-class compartment – blessedly empty – as the lights of Didcot flashed by in the magical twilight of a spring evening. Tea with her aunts generally gave her a splitting headache. Lydia had fled their world at the age of seventeen to enroll at Oxford – to her wealthy father's disinheriting fury – and a few years previously would have simply torn up Aunt Isobel's note and abandoned Emily to her fate.
But in January of 1912 – seventeen months ago now – Lydia had herself become a mother. And while she hoped she wouldn't become one of those doting parents who found their child's first steps more interesting than an analysis of pituitary secretions, she did find herself understanding her aunt in a way that she never had before.
Even more startlingly – she noted with academic interest – she found herself looking forward to a game of pick-up sticks with her daughter upon her return home, almost as much as she looked forward to the intellectual challenge of her article. Which was very unlike herself.
Was Dr Millward – who had recently called Jamie 'a blind and sterile quibbler' in an article in the Journal of British Folklore – correct insofar as that the glandular changes triggered by pregnancy had an effect on the chemistry of a woman's brain?
He certainly has an extremely inaccurate perception of vampires. Since her first glimpse of a vampire in a London alleyway in 1907 – the year James had been blackmailed into working for the London nest – she had associated with the Undead on four separate occasions and had the suspicion that for all his scholarship, Dr Millward had never actually spoken to a vampire in his life.
James Asher, though a folklorist and linguist, had no more believed in vampires six years ago than he'd believed the moon to be made of green cheese, and Millward had been absolutely scathing about his monograph on the origins of Balkan traditions concerning the walking dead. As the lights of Oxford glimmered through the trees, Lydia planned her evening letter to James. In his hotel in Venice, she knew he'd smile at both Millward's rodomontade and at his shocked fury at being put on the same level as a fashionable spiritualist charlatan ...
And she was thus meditating on the subject of the Undead when she stepped from her compartment to the platform, and saw at once that something was terribly wrong.
Ellen – who had been a maid at Lydia's childhood home of Willoughby Close – never came to meet trains. On those occasions on which Lydia went down to London by herself (a perfectly respectable activity, she had more than once reminded the aunts and another extremely old-fashioned acquaintance), James would meet her homecoming train with a cab: the Ashers did not keep a carriage. When James was away from Oxford, Mick Bell – who worked in the Ashers' garden – would meet her.
But when Lydia peered short-sightedly around the platform for someone of Mick's stature and coloring – she had not the slightest intention of putting on her spectacles where anyone could see her – she made out not only Mick, but Ellen, Bette the parlor maid, Mrs Brock (Miranda's nurse) and, almost unbelievably, not only someone who looked like little Mrs Grimes the cook but also Tilly the scullery girl, all running toward her through the drifts of dispersing passengers.
Mrs Grimes? Lydia's heart seemed to stand still in her chest. Years of navigating the world without the disfigurement of 'gig-lamps', as the other girls at school had called them, hanging on her face had taught her to identify people almost unerringly by the way they moved. There could be no mistake – it was Mrs Grimes. Why would SHE come ...?
They'd never have left just Nan the nursery maid home with Miranda ...
Her hands and feet went cold.
She ran toward them, breathless with fear and shock as they nearly collided.
'I swear it, ma'am, I don't know! I was in the garden, couldn't nobody have got to the house ...'
Oh, God ...
Dizziness. Shock. Terror.
'Miss Lydia, I took them up a tray at seven ...'
'We were in the kitchen together, ma'am, and how anyone could have got into the house ...'
'What happened?' She fought the urge to take the cook by the shoulders and slap her.
This can't really be taking place ...
Tears streaking her face, the big maid held out a sheet of folded paper. 'This was on her pillow, ma'am.'
It had been sealed with red wax, the image on the seal – Lydia held it close enough to see its details clearly by the gas-jet on the station wall – a woman planting a tree. The seal had been cracked. The servants had read it already.
Jamie's work with old manuscripts – among other things – had taught Lydia what sixteenth-century handwriting looked like.
Y'r daughter & ye girl are well & safe & will no be harmed. Yet you must needs speake with me and soone.
Cold panic turned to rage so hot it was almost blinding.
The Master Vampire of London. Dead since 1555. Since 1666 the ruler – and the begetter – of the vampires of London.
Lydia crushed the note and the hard wax dug into her hand like the edge of a coin. In a calm corner of her heart she knew quite well that it had been no choice of James' to make the acquaintance of the London nest and its sinister master. Nevertheless, for a moment she hated not only Grippen – the man, the thing, the animate corpse that had penned the words – but James as well.
Six years ago, the London vampires had sought James out, and before that bargain was concluded he and she had both come so close under the shadow of the wings of Death, they could feel the fan of the feathers.
She shook as if the May night had turned to bitter winter. 'Get my bags, please, Mick.'
James would laugh at her for taking, for an afternoon in London, a valise containing rice-powder, rouge, mascaro, distilled water of green pineapples, rosewater and glycerin, a silk shawl, a wool shawl, a change of shoes, three issues of Lancet and Curie's 'On a New Radioactive Substance ...', plus bottles of lemonade and mineral water, and two very large hatboxes – but this, she would point out to him, was only because he was sufficiently handsome that he did not require extensive embellishment to appear presentable. People didn't care what men looked like anyway.
She stood balling the paper tighter and tighter in her hand and shaking as if with fever.
He took Miranda. He took my daughter.
She had never understood why women in plays and novels screamed. Now she knew.
We will stay away from you and yours, the vampires had said to James, when he had accomplished the task they had needed a living man to do. It is simply prudence on our part. You could hunt us down eventually, were you willing to give your soul to it, to become obsessed ... To hunt us would be to hunt smoke ...
But she had always known they were there.
He took my daughter ...
Rage and panic made it hard to breathe.
'Who is he, Miss Lydia?' Ellen whispered. 'How could this Grippen have just walked into the house like that? Bette was up to the nursery just an hour before—'
'He's no one.' Lydia took a deep breath. 'Put his name out of your mind. Never think of it again. Mick ...'
The gardener appeared, laboring under hatboxes and bags.
'Please take Ellen and the others back to the house. I'm going to walk.'
'You can't, ma'am!' Even at age twenty-one, Mick was scandalized. 'It's a good three-quarter mile, and it's near to eleven—'
'Not wearing those shoes, Miss Lydia!' Ellen protested. 'They're not—'
I really am going to scream.
'Just go! Please.' She softened her voice with an effort. 'I'll be quite all right, it's right through the center of town and the worst I'll encounter is undergraduates.'
And a man who has systematically murdered thirty thousand people and drunk their blood in order to stay alive himself.
If I'm lucky.
'That isn't the point, Miss Lydia. What your mother would have said, or your aunts, if I were to let you go walking about the town by yourself—'
Her voice shaking – knowing what would happen to Ellen, or to any of the servants, if they accompanied her – Lydia said, 'Just please do as I ask. I need the fresh air ...'
It took ten minutes of arguing before they obeyed. Any of her aunts, Lydia reflected, with a chilled detachment as she watched the little knot of servants finally walk away, would have fired them on the spot. Dear God, please don't let them follow and watch me ...
Breathless with the pounding of her heart, when Lydia reached the end of the platform she slipped her silver spectacle case from her handbag, put on the thick, round-lensed glasses that she never let anyone (except James) see her wear. Better a blinky-blind skinnybones (as the other girls at Madame Chappedelaine's Select Academy for Young Ladies had called her) than a goggle-eyed golliwog (her other appellation there). One could get over being a skinnybones if one had the money to hire a really good dressmaker.