“But…but what is all this?”
Lady Charlotte and the Count – it was difficult not to think of him as such despite his exposure as a mere Mr Kovacs – stood in the midst of a large and scrupulously clean chamber, the contents of which Charlotte found both horrifying and immensely interesting.
Along one wall, the room was lined with shelves, upon which stood more than one hundred books, their titles addressing such subjects as ‘Humours and Fluxes of the Human Sanguinary System: A Treatise Upon the Four Fundamental Conditions of The Blood’, ‘Rare Maladies of the Far East: a Study of Vampyrism and Its Origins’ and ‘Advanced Alchemy: Beyond the Noble Metals’.
Along the length of another wall were stored a collection of flasks and beakers containing various carefully labelled fluids, objects and substances. Charlotte could make no sense of it: the containers were marked with cryptic titles such as ‘Sir Randolph Terrence, 1453, No 101 (b)’ ‘Essence of Alium Sativum (Garlic)’ and ‘SPS, Common White’.
The room was on the second floor, and lined with large windows which allowed a quantity of clear light to flood inside. These windows looked out upon a small enclosed garden, which seemed to mostly contain – as far as Charlotte could ascertain from a quick scrutiny – herb beds. Beyond the garden rose a high stone wall, covered with ivy and topped with spikes, which obscured further view.
In the centre of the room was that which most captured Charlotte’s horrified attention – a long and narrow marble table, on which was stretched the dessicated – but yet not decayed – figure of a man. The corpse – for such it appeared to be – was pinned at hands, ankle, neck and waist by bands of iron which would probably have effectively restrained an elephant. The dead, gelatinous eyes stared fixedly at the ceiling. Worse, the corpse was entirely naked.
Charlotte averted her eyes and stood by the windows, as far away from the unpleasant sight as possible.
“What is the purpose of…all this? And who is he?” She gestured distastefully at the corpse.
“The purpose of all this is to enable me to apply the methods of modern science to the study of an ancient condition – vampyrism. And that man,” replied the Count, “is your ancestor, Stephen Chalmers.”
Charlotte gasped and put a hand to her mouth.
“What? No – that cannot be true. He is buried in our family vault, I have seen the sarcophagus, when my father died! And besides, this man is not…not…”
“Decayed? You are right, a corpse of this age – more than two hundred years – exposed to the air, should be little more than bones by now. But it is, in fact, Stephen Chalmers, Viscount Debenham. I took the liberty, soon after that accident which resulted in his death, of having his earthly remains quietly removed to my own premises.”
“But – why?” Charlotte shuddered, shocked by the casual way in which the Count confessed to grave-robbing.
“Stephen was, in his own way, a remarkable man. He has much to tell us, scientifically speaking, and since he was a scientist himself, I think he would have been pleased to know that he continues to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, even beyond his demise.” He patted the corpse familiarly on its scaly knee. “But I promised that I will reveal a secret to you that would change your mind – and so I shall.”
He strolled over to the bookshelf, mounted a small wooden step ladder, and took something down carefully from the top shelf. Charlotte saw that it was a leather box, long and flat, and closed with a heavy lock.
The Count drew a key from a chain at his waist, and turned it. He opened the box. Charlotte drew nearer, torn between a squeamish fear of what she might see and curiosity. She hoped that the secret was not macabre: images of hanged men’s fingers, newts’ eyes and bats’ wings came unpleasantly to mind.
But what the Count withdrew from the box was nothing of that kind. Instead, it was a neat sheaf of papers, which Charlotte could see was covered with the Count’s own elegant longhand. If his origins were vulgar, his education clearly was not.
“This,” he said softly, handling the papers with loving care, “has been my life’s work. And I have had, as you may imagine, a very long life.”
Charlotte swallowed. “How long, exactly?” She knew, of course, that the Count was a vampyre, like herself. But she knew little of his history – how little, she chided herself to realise. If only they had talked more, if only she had asked the questions she ought to have asked – instead of allowing herself to be caught up in all the froth and triviality of a society wedding. Perhaps, if she known more about her bridegroom, the whole scene at the church could have been avoided.
“Two thousand, two hundred and eighty years, to be precise.”
Charlotte was taken aback. She had not imagined him to be quite that ancient.
“You’re very well-preserved,” she said dryly.
He shrugged. “I was thirty when I was – turned. We do not age.”
“But – you have lived on the continent all that time? Or in England?” She tried to remember her history. Had Boadicea roamed the home counties then? Was Rome mistress of the world? Alas, she had not paid enough attention to her governess or for that matter to her Aunt Augusta.
“I was born in Athens, Greece, as a matter of fact,” explained the Count. “From time to time I have been tempted to correct some scholar who knows much less than he thinks about Classical Greece. But that would only cause resentment and confusion, so I refrain.”
“Oh?” Charlotte was no classical scholar. But if only Aunt Augusta were here in this room, she would think her lifelong dreams had come true – the chance to discuss the philosophy of Plato, the plays of Sophocles, the history of the Peloponnesian War, with someone who had known them at first hand.! “Then… you spoke of many names, many titles. Who are you really? And were you ever a servant of – that man?”
“As you can imagine, I have needed to change identities many times over the years, to protect myself. It is awkward when one does not age and die as other men do. I have lived in many different countries under many different names. That gentleman in the church was right – I was a servant for a while – not his – and very instructive it was. Every nobleman should try living as a commoner from time to time, it would do them the world of good. But I have also been a Count, and a Sheik of Araby, and a Knight Templar, and the owner of a bookshop in Rheims… In Athens I was called Lycidas. My father grew olives.”
Charlotte tilted her head. The whole story was becoming quite incredible – if she chose to believe it.
“And the Count of Saxe-Coburg Dragenhof?”
“A title I used many years ago. In the fourteenth century, to be exact. A dark and violent time – I much prefer our present civilised state.”
“But then you entered English society, you lied to all of us. Did you not expect, eventually, to be discovered, exposed for a fraud? And then, if we had been married, you would have brought ruination upon yourself, upon my family, upon me…”
“As to that,” retorted the Count, raising one eyebrow, “would not the eventual, and inevitable, discovery of your vampyrism have had exactly the same result?”
Charlotte flushed. She had to acknowledge the truth of what he had said. She cast a speaking look in the direction of her defunct ancestor, as if appealing to him for help.
“Ah yes, Stephen.” The Count followed her gaze. “Speaking of vampyrism, as I mentioned, I have long been conducting research into this mysterious condition. The aim of this research is to find a cure which will rid the vampyre of his taste for blood and render him again fit to cohabit with his fellow humans. Stephen here has been assisting me with my enquiries. He is quite an unusual specimen. He is a vampyre, yes, but he has been able to sire a line of descendants – an ability possessed by no other of his kind, as far as I know. Furthermore Stephen’s descendants – in effect, yourself – possess some unusual qualities of their own. For instance, you can resist the urge to bite, although it is uncomfortable for you to do so.”
Charlotte grimaced. She was still hungry. It seemed, now, as if she was always hungry.
“Moreover, when you bite others, you automatically pass on the condition, rather than needing to share your own blood with the victim. That, too, is unusual. Bess, for instance, cannot create a vampyre unless she allows her victim to feed from her. You can.”
“Is that so unusual? I understood from my reading that…”
“What you have read is incorrect. The world would be nothing but vampyres if each vampyre created another when he fed, and that vampyre another, and so on. In any case, ever since Stephen worked with Edward, the first Duke of Dunroth, to change the very nature of vampyrism, I have devoted myself to studying the disease, to studying the physical conditions that lie at its very root. When we understand the condition, we will be in a position to treat it, and rid the world – not to mention its sufferers, such as yourself – of a great evil. And this,” he held up the sheaf of papers in his hand, “is the culmination of my work – a paper I intend to deliver to the Royal Academy of Occult Sciences at its Annual Meeting in March. I had hoped that you might consent to assist me in that project.”
“To the Royal Academy of Occult Sciences? I do not think I have heard of that association.”
“Its existence is necessarily secret. For most people, the occult is not a science. Even within the Academy, there are sceptics.”
“But then, surely they will not believe –”
“They will, when I present them with Viscount Debenham.”
Charlotte could scarcely imagine what the gentlemen of the Academy would say when confronted by the enervated corpse of a long dead vampyre. Perhaps as students of the occult they were accustomed to such things. “But vampyrism, surely – it is not a mere physical condition, nor an ailment – like the common cold, or measles! Surely it belongs to the spiritual realm, to Satan’s domain, a place which cannot be investigated through chemistry and” she waved towards Stephen’s body, “cadavers.”
“So it has been assumed. I used to believe this myself, when I was a young vampyre, travelling throughout the world, feeding upon my fellow man and loathing the lust for blood that made me do so. I despaired of ever regaining my normal life. But when I came to King Henry’s court, and discovered that Stephen Chalmers and Edward Dunroth were able to affect the condition using merely physical means – potions, chemistry, such science as was available in their day – I realised that there is nothing on this earth which cannot be deciphered and understood in the physical realm – the realm in which we live. It is scientific enquiry, not hocus-pocus or Christian symbols or cloves of garlic, which will save us in the end from these dark forces.”
The Count strode about the small chamber, his face alight: it was clear to Charlotte that he had a strong passion for his subject.
Unwillingly, she felt herself being drawn into his world – a world of curiosity, knowledge, optimism and reasoned enquiry. She knew that she should oppose his argument – her faith had always been the very bedrock of her existence, and she still refused to believe that there was no more to vampyrism than a mere infection, like measles or chickenpox.
“In any case,” said the Count, looking down at her with a certain light in his eyes, “I believe I am on the verge of discovering a cure for vampyrism, which is based upon both your ancestor’s seminal work and physical contribution. But it is you yourself, Lady Charlotte, who are the final key to the puzzle. You asked what benefit there was to me in…saving you. This, in a nutshell, is my answer.”
“I am the key? And how if I do not wish to be a part of this…project?” Lady Charlotte’s lip quivered. Somewhere within her, she had longed to hear that the Count’s real reason for wishing to wed was love, an unbridled passion that had struck him the very first moment he beheld her. Clearly, this was far from the case. The Count’s language struck her as unpleasantly clinical. Was this all that their union would have come down to – a mad scientist’s desire to impress his colleagues and make a name for himself in the world?
“Well then, of course, you need not be. I would not have forced you,” he answered at once. “I may be a liar and a… commoner, but I would not have stooped to use you for my own selfish ends. I grant, before I knew you, I thought of you only as a means to further my work. I was aware that a descendant of Stephen Chalmers had, at last, exhibited the very particular qualities I was seeking, and I hoped to complete the puzzle on which I had been working for so long.”
The Count crossed the floor to her side, and placed his hands on her shoulders. Charlotte avoided his eyes, trying to suppress any sign of her disappointment.
“But Charlotte, as soon as I saw you kneeling on that chapel floor I knew there was more – I wanted to help you, protect you. And then, when I heard you had taken that potion, and with it imbibed the spirit of Queen Anne – I knew I had to act quickly, not only for the sake of England – but for your sake, too. You must be aware that I… hold you in considerable affection.”
Affection? Lady Charlotte’s heart lurched in her breast. She forced herself to glance up, and saw an intensity of feeling in his expression that caused her to turn away in embarrassment. Could it be that his motive for wishing to marry her was not as purely scientific as he had just claimed? And yet, he had said when he proposed to her that their marriage would be a form only. She blushed, and was about to reply, when a sudden movement made her turn quickly about.
To her utter dismay, the corpse of Stephen Chalmers had opened its eyes, lifted its grisly head and was looking straight at her and at the Count, with what could only be described as an expression of abject despair….