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Between the Shadow & the Soul

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Vanessa wakes into a dream. She is young in it. She is walking barefoot down the beach in a white dress, her stays loosely tied and her hair caught up in a single braid. Ahead, Peter is a speck, nearly a mirage, head lowered and shoulders hunched, blurring against the white sand and white sky in his shirt-sleeves.

This is how she knows it is a dream. The demon who rides her cares nothing for Peter. Mina in her mind speaks of him only by way of a barbed taunt. There is some strange pain in the thought of Mina, even in the dream, but in the dream she can brush it aside. Dreams of Peter are her own dreams, inconsequential and precious. She laughs out loud and hails him, both sounds carried from her mouth by the wind; then bunches her skirt up in both fists and runs in pursuit. Water, rising slowly to high tide, laps at her ankles. The hard-packed sand stings her bare soles. She has not been so happy in longer than she can rightly remember, never on this side of the chasm of memory that has swallowed years of her life and left only nightmares in her mind. This is how she knows it is a dream, and that she will wake soon. She is within a handspan of Peter now, and she has never yet caught him. She does not know what it means, whether it means anything. Only guilt, she hopes. Nothing worse. For Peter only the simple truth of human frailty, vanities, impotence, regret. Nothing strange.

“Peter,” she calls again, the sound of her own voice loud even against the pounding surf. These waters are never so loud in the sun as in her mind, her own voice never so stentorian. “Peter. Peter, Peter, Peter. Peter!”

He stops in his tracks, water pooling into his footsteps and obliterating them, and turns to look at her. It is a dead face, pallid and withered by a harsher sun than Vanessa has ever seen, desiccated. A terrible face, but still Peter, the kind eyes still the same, the dead mouth still twisted in his self-deprecating smile. Nothing changed in death, or rendered awful. Still just Peter, ineffectual and weak, beloved in his weakness.

She walks, slowly, the last few paces up the sand towards him, the hem of her skirt trailing water. This is as close as she has ever been to him, even in her dreams, even when she has embraced Mina and Sir Malcolm. Always a veil, between her and Peter, between her and her mother. She reaches out to him, the tips of her fingers ghosting over his wasted cheek, longing to touch him.

When she wakes, it is to Sembene’s quizzical glance, one arm upraised to grasp some ghastly fragment of Peter Murray, now dead two years in Africa, never recovered and never forgotten. She sits up, clutching the covers to her, but Sembene simply purses his mouth and moves away.

When he’s at the door, she shakes her head to drive away the fantastic cobwebs of sleep, and says, “Did you want something?”

He doesn’t turn to look at her. For a long moment, while he stands holding the door slightly ajar, she apprehends that he will simply duck through it and disappear, as he often does. Sembene, Sir Malcolm had once confided in a gregarious moment, is all the mysteries of Africa in one ferocious body. He never speaks without reason, and even then seems oftimes to expect one to divine meaning from a gesture or upraised eyebrow.

At length he confesses, “Malcolm is taking down his maps.”

It is indeed a momentous occasion, meriting speech. Vanessa awaits Sembene’s departure and then climbs out of bed, performing her ablutions and then struggling into her chemise, stays, petticoats, corset-cover, and finally her gown. Black, as much of her wardrobe is, whatever of it isn’t navy blue or a deep crimson. She has been in mourning, for her mother, for Peter, for such years. Now for Mina also, and her family of blood and of the heart is shrunken to the old man in his study admitting defeat, ceding control. She piles her hair high on her head and stabs pins viciously into the coils.

 

 

Sir Malcolm is in his shirtsleeves, waist-coat unbuttoned, collar abandoned, sleeves rolled up to the elbow. His eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. When they returned, the three of them, in the pallid dawn, Victor and Ethan having already abandoned them, he had suffered Sembene’s ministrations with ill grace, keeping a firm hold on Vanessa’s hand through the proceedings, tightening his grip occasionally as though the alcohol burnt him. She has seen the man sit still as a statue while a bullet was taken out of him with heated fire-tongs, and later while gouges made by the beasts were being examined ungently by Victor Frankenstein. In the lamp-light he looks haggard, almost old, almost frail.

He confesses what she has known for months and she folds him up in her arms, both weeping, his body wracked with sobs against hers. Peter, she thinks desperately, Peter knew, Peter came to her to bid farewell, Peter knew he would never lie in English soil. Sir Malcolm’s hands harden to fists on either side of her spine, and then flatten abruptly, the shape of his fingers obvious even through the layers of cloth and whalebone between them. He holds her upright and close to his heart thundering beneath his waistcoat, shirt, undershirt; beneath her cheek the pulse leaps traitorously in his bared throat. Yesterday he informed her he would kill her to get to his daughter should that prove necessary; yesterday he called her daughter and shot Mina to save her, once in the shoulder and then in the heart. His hand on her back caresses the exit wounds on Mina’s back, shoulder and sternum.

When he draws her to armslength his face is still like the coast after a storm, all passion spent. He essays a smile and brushes a kiss over her brow before letting her go, stepping back to his gear. She stands watching him dismantle it, the dream of Africa disappearing from the walls, and is abruptly seized by a violent anger that is surprising only because her own emotion motivates it: it is terrible to lose a traveller on the same trail, to be alone again, walking in the shadow. But she foresaw this morning, so many months ago when she came destitute to his door: he has found Mina and stopped, but she must go on again alone.

Her face is a cipher to most; Mr. Grey, who prides himself on a discerning eye in such matters, informed her outright that she puzzled him. Sir Malcolm, who has the decided advantage of having been within the fortress before the battlements were raised, glances at her and orders her back to bed.

She contemplates disobedience for a moment, debate that can be pulled to the dizzying heights of argument, a fight, books ripped apart, crockery smashed, his hands on her in anger, all the joyous violence that unites them in spirit. She blinks and he is favouring her with a bemused kindliness, as though the five years between her betrayal of Mina and Mina’s murder have never happened, as though this is the future she dreamt of when they were children together, then girls on the verge of womanhood, and Sir Malcolm is simply home again after his travels, his explorations through Africa, terra incognita left behind for the quiet English country-life. The riotous anticipation drains out of her, and leaves her suddenly very tired.

“I will go to bed,” she ventures, and he nods at her once, firmly, folding the map in his hands contrary to its creases. “You ought to retire yourself.” Daughterly solicitousness is a new and strange thing, but not unlovely to the heart. He claimed her in blood and gunpowder, she ought at least attempt to reciprocate.

He files the map away in the growing stack in his leather-bound trunk, still folded wrong, moving by touch. “I’m too old to need much sleep or for sleep to do me much good. You’ll find it far more restorative.” By way of incentive, coaxing shamelessly, he adds, “Mr. Grey called on you earlier in the day. I doubt he’s accustomed to being awake that early, he had a rather stunned visage.”

“Deny him my door,” she says immediately, and steels herself for explanation, though he must know, after the weeks-long spectacle she made of herself, why she cannot bear to see Dorian again, or risk dancing on the verge of lunacy, possession. But they are cruel to each other often, and perhaps he wants it said, her weaknesses made words.

“With the greatest prejudice,” he assures her. “I abominate a man who continues to importune a lady who has made her disinterest clear. Now away to bed with you.”

The last brusque familiarity sends her off. She goes across the hall and up the stairs to her room and bed, looking in no dark corners, letting nothing into her conscious thought other than the way Sir Malcolm smiled at her, like at a favoured niece, or even, a thought to tremble at, a daughter.

Drifting back into sleep, she thinks, did Peter know I wanted to be his father’s daughter and only so his wife?

She wakes again in the cold morning, her mind made up in the long night’s dreamless sleep, and goes to church before the household awakens.

 

 

She returns with her mind in toils, coils, the serpent’s embrace, the answered question now unanswerable, to a house desolate. The front door is unlocked; Sir Malcolm’s stripped study redolent in gun-oil; Sembene’s daggers and Sir Malcolm’s, usually prominently displayed above the maps, as prominently absent. Nothing in the house itself whispers to her mind. She equips herself with a small pearl-handled pistol and goes through it once, cellar to attic, peering in every dark corner for occupants, leaving all her senses open but one, be that the most important. That first moment showed the place echoingly empty to the sixth, secret sense that ties her to the demimonde; there’s no reason to strain herself, so soon. She returns to her room, picks up her cards, abandons them and then her habit, and decides on balance to attempt a novel. Something light, easily abandoned, and of the stripe that would make Sir Malcolm scoff and Victor look torn between curiosity and indignation. Something that they would have read as children, she and Mina and Peter.

She is a bare chapter into Le Comte de la Monte Cristo when someone raps at the door, gently at first and then with unconcealed impatience. Vanessa scrambles up from her seat on the stairs, deserting Edmund Dantes at the beginning of his adventures, and unbolts it.

Three men topple in, Sir Malcolm and Sembene between them supporting Ethan Chandler. Victor follows them at a careful distance, grimaces a greeting at her, and locks the door, then bars it. None of them so much as look at her, though Ethan at least looks to be incapable of speech; set down on the stairs, he slumps in an unsightly heap, head lolling to one side and sweat standing out on his brow. Sir Malcolm strips at speed out of his voluminous travelling cloak and coat, revealing revolvers strapped to his sides and a bulky bandolier of bullets slung over his torso, all of which Sembene takes charge of and deposits, quite carelessly, on the nearest empty surface, an end-table whose original burden of a bronze bust ends festooned with the bullets. Sembene himself is festooned with knives beneath his overcoat. Victor, reassuringly, betrays no trace of weaponry even to a searching glance.

Bemused and not a little afraid, she says, “I don’t suppose anyone will see fit to tell me what’s afoot?”

“I’m in the dark myself,” Victor volunteers, sinking down on the stairs himself, graceless as a boy, and adjusting Ethan’s head to gain easier access to the pulse-points at his throat. “And in addition I’ve had to administer a fairly large dose of sedatives to Mr. Chandler, so in all honesty I’m in as much trepidation as you.”

He looks rather the opposite, truth be told. Victor would be at ease more in an abattoir than in a parlour: for a man who looks as though he belongs in one of the more high-strung productions of Keats, Victor does rather well in the blood and guts line.

Sir Malcolm, now in his shirt-sleeves again though this time with the waistcoat buttoned and collar fastened, beckons her to his study, where they lurk in the doorway all the better, she suspects, to observe Ethan.

“I’ve been summoned to the police-station; there’s been another of the murders we were interested in, and I showed my eagerness at the time too blatantly for indifference to suit now.”

And they have so many things to hide, after all, so many bodies buried too near the surface of the soil, unburied, maimed. “If Sembene is to go with you,” she says, laying her hand on his arm and hoping it conveys a reassurance she is far now from feeling, “Dr. Frankenstein and I can undertake to convey Mr. Chandler to a sopha in the drawing-room, at least. I confess I cannot undertake to put him in bed in a guest-room between the two of us.”

Sir Malcolm grimaces at her. The vitality that had drained from him the night before now transforms his visage into a mask of ferocity: a predator on the hunt. She would like to stuff him, mount him, set mirrors behind his eyes. “You’ll have no need for the exertion,” he promises. “Sembene and I will secure him in the cellar before we depart.”

“He can’t be involved with the murder, surely.”

“No?” He contemplates the buttoned cuff of his sleeve, the tilted top of Ethan’s head over her shoulder, the lace edging the curtains; the gaze when it returns to her is a trifle calculating, and extremely tired. “When we found him he was blinking up at the great blue yonder, with his sleeves rent to shreds and a bit of raw flesh in his pocket ripped off some poor creature’s leg.”

“You weren’t called up today,” Vanessa surmises. “Yesterday, when you sent me off to bed.”

“A little later,” he agrees. “We’ve had a long hunt of it. We returned with the dawn and set out again soon after your own departure, more productively the second time. You are... disappointed. I would not willingly hazard you again so soon.”

“It isn’t that,” she says, though, oh, how it warms her through to hear him say it, so nonchalantly. “It has been some time since I was so utterly mistaken in my estimation of any man; I suppose it bruises one’s ego.” Something certainly is hurt, and that is easiest admitted.

Sir Malcolm grunts and ducks his head to catch her eye. Something in her gaze, something in her face, makes his soften. “Do you remember how he tamed the wolves in the London Zoo with a touch of the hand? You were somewhat preoccupied at the time,” he adds generously.

“Mr. Chandler has hinted at his childhood enough to me and Dr. Frankenstein for me to speculate that he spent some time at least with the natives, and they are reputed to be expert with animals.”

“So they are, but we must consider that Mr. Chandler has a closer affinity to the animals than some years spent with increasingly constrained natives and their fabled ability to control simpler beasts.” He looks away from her again, to Ethan and Victor, and Sembene standing guard with a hand on the hilt of his dagger. “Have you ever heard of lycanthropy? Werewolves, Vanessa.”

“Only on the stage of the Grand Guignol. Sir Malcolm, I’m sorry.”

“It’s a marvellous stage that shows many things truly,” he answers steadily, though the colour has leached from his burnt brown face. “Come, he’s stirring and we must be off.”

 

 

They cuff Ethan to the wall: all of them, Vanessa not exempted but instead tasked with winding finer chains around his fingers and ankles. Ethan shudders in his bindings, thrashes around and tries to bite them and his own flesh loose of the shackles.

“You’d be well-advised to gag him,” Victor says, “unless you want him to bite himself raw, or one of us.”

Sembene produces one without much delay: a slim bar of the sort that is considered humane for horses and is a travesty between the teeth of any man of Caucasian birth, even an American. Ethan tries to close his jaws around it, fails and tries again till he tears the skin before sagging in his bonds; a lone drop of blood travels down his chin and throat into the darknesses beneath his shirt. Above his drooping head Sir Malcolm and Sembene share a smile and a shrugging glance, one to the other. They have been thinking this out, the old hunters, each accustomed to equipping an expedition with care and expedience and both recently balked of the long-awaited return to Africa. If she searches his study she is sure to find an itemised list in Sir Malcolm’s copperplate, listing off chains, gags, sedatives. Perhaps bullets, though he usually prefers to do his butchering at close quarters.

“We ought to pad the cuffs,” she says, when it becomes clear that no thought of Ethan’s comfort is likely to occur to the others, though not unless she is mistaken from any desire to see him hurt or even discomfited. Simply comfort is the province of women. “In a well-regulated establishment I would ask that the linen cupboard be raided.”

“We aren’t seeking to mummify him just yet,” Sir Malcolm says, and smiles. “Sembene, my dressing-room should yield the necessary articles.”

“His neck at least should be padded immediately,” she insists. “Doctor, if you would be so kind.”

Victor injects Ethan again before donating his neckerchief to the cause. The veins on his arms are bulging, starkly blue against the paler skin of his wrist and shoulder; even tranquilised he struggles: not the intelligent attempts of a rational creature, but imbued with an animal’s unthinking terror.

“I once saw a panther chew its own paw off in order to escape a trap,” Sir Malcolm muses. “And the previous occupant of this cellar attempted something quite similar himself.”

“Then I suggest you secure Mr. Chandler in a way least likely to allow him to harm either himself or one of us,” Vanessa says tartly, and has to find a seat for herself somewhat removed from proceedings. A cut on Ethan’s cheek has reopened and is bleeding sluggishly: a long shallow scratch shaped to an inhuman head. Ethan, whom she had mentally dubbed the best of them, who is instead scarcely human at all but something strange and terrible.

“He oughtn’t be able to do so much as twitch a muscle. Miss Ives, the man has enough sedatives in him at the moment to flatten three.”

“Three abstemious men perhaps,” Sir Malcolm allows, voicing Vanessa’s suspicion. “But our friend Mr. Chandler is strictly speaking neither.”

“If the good doctor feels unable to further poison Mr. Chandler, perhaps more mechanical restrictions might be sought. We’ll wait for Sembene.”

Ethan groans once, a full-bodied sound that echoes through the narrow, cool cellar, and raises the hair on end and makes the skin on Vanessa’s arms prickle.

Victor says, sounding shaken for the first time since their arrival despite his protestations of trepidation, “All this drugged and in broad daylight.”

Sir Malcolm, until then hovering just out of Ethan’s reach, steps back from the edge of peril to survey the situation at hand. “There are rings in the wall already,” he allows, “and places where one might drive more, should they prove necessary. I must confess that when I purchased this house I hardly thought to put it to such use and so frequently.”

“Liar,” she says fondly, and when they turn to her, informs Victor, “The house has been in his family since the time of one George or another, I suspect the mad one. When we were children... my father’s house is quite close, in London as in the country.”

“You three would come exploring cellar and attic,” Sir Malcolm says slowly, with an effort of remembrance, “and emerge cobwebbed little ragamuffins. And once when we returned from a ball at Lord Elgin’s you were all three missing from your beds, and Gladys was nearly out of her mind with worry, raving about kidnappers and burglars and how your parents would never forgive us. I found you in the end, a final search before we resorted to Scotland Yard, all three bedded down by the wall, wrapped in a moth-eaten lion-skin, only you awake, your eyes glinting in the torchlight. Was it this wall?”

“No,” she says, and leans back to rest her palm against the wall she is sitting before. “This one.”

He is beside her in two strides, his hand next to hers on the damp stone: a big gnarled paw fit to swallow her hand. “Yes,” he says, and looks away momentarily, “out of sight of the door, we didn’t see you when first we came looking. You decided to nest here, didn’t you?”

“There’s little sense in hiding if one can be easily found. It was an adventure.”

He smiles down at her. Just now it makes the years roll back. She remembers she had raised her arms to him, to be caught up and held, her ear pressed to his chest, and had fallen asleep while he had carried her up to bed, soothed by the steady rhythm of his heart. His own children had slept on unknowing in the cool darkness, and had been brought up by dilatory valets and terrified nursemaids, while he had tucked her in and stayed with her till she slept. In the morning they had looked each to the other at breakfast and he had winked at her before listening soberly to the lecture his wife was handing out to all three children. It had been their joke, their little secret, and having one with him had eased her heart of the secret she held so closely about him and her mother. For a while she had wondered in the wake of the earlier discovery whether he had sired her, but that night she had given it up for irrelevant.

“I was glad to be found,” she promises, and smiles up at him while he grasps her hand.

Presently Sembene emerges into the gloom with an armful of clothing: several of Sir Malcolm’s scarves, which do good service twisted about the handcuffs, and a pair of clocked stockings that Sir Malcolm himself has certainly never worn but Sembene infrequently dons when attending formal gatherings, which he wraps about Ethan’s ankles.

“He’ll stiffen up rather horribly,” Victor opines. “And after moonrise we might want to allow him some more room to... stretch.”

“After sunset we will arrange him differently,” Sembene says, finishing his task and standing up. “For now this will suffice. Malcolm, you had best depart.”

“Change his gag,” Vanessa says peremptorily, and stands her ground when all three turn to look at her incredulously. “Give him cloth to bite on, or at least pad the bit. It’s vile.”

She will gladly be thought of as a sentimental woman, given over to emotional outbursts, if it secures Ethan the least scrap of human comfort. She has been thought worse. A clean death is honourable, but she is too familiar with well-meaning torment to countenance it.

“He would only choke on cotton,” Sembene says. “He is beginning to quieten now, in some time I will extract the bit.” He raises a hand to forestall Victor. “I have with me some poppy oil to loosen his muscles. I will apply it once you are gone.”

Sir Malcolm smiles, claps Sembene on the shoulder. “Very well, I leave them to your care. Come, Vanessa. Doctor.”

Victor ejaculates, “Are you trying to preserve our modesty? I admit that with Miss Ives it makes a modicum of sense, but I’m a man, and a surgeon besides.”

“Perhaps,” Sembene says, offering a smile that is little better than a smirk, “I am trying to preserve Mr. Chandler’s. He will have little of it soon.”

Sir Malcolm, coming up to grasp Victor by the elbow, murmurs, “I find it’s little use to argue about these things,” and leads them both firmly up the stairs and into the facade of civility.

 

 

Victor, never one to admit defeat or let things rest, says after a failed expedition down to the cellar to seek entrance, “I believe he is refining too much on Ethan’s predilections and your own statements concerning the same.”

Vanessa, dragged unwilling from the account of torments in the Chateau d’Iif, says, “What statements?” and glances up in time to watch Victor blanch. “I see. I could probably remember those weeks, but I feel for the sake of my rather... fragile sanity that I ought not make the attempt.”

Victor hesitates, a strange thing for him, but only a moment. “You told us all, rather graphically, that Ethan had had relations with Mr. Grey, as had you and as had his own companion, Miss Croft.”

“And you believe Sembene therefore adjudges us both unfit to uncover his nakedness?”

Victor grimaces. “Miss Ives, I’m sorry if I’ve...”

She waves it off, pretends to feint at him with the novel. “I think it had better be Vanessa, now. If I said it, then, it is very likely to true. It certainly is, as regards myself and Mr. Grey. Have I confirmed some theory of yours?”

He colours. “In the beginning I had speculated that your episodes might have a psycho-sexual trigger.”

She makes herself smile. “Right on the money, Victor. Even you bring everything around to sex in the end; you can hardly blame Sembene.”

“The whole world seems to come around to sex, in the end, even creatures and creations to whom one wouldn’t think of attributing such desires. It would be folly for a scientist to overlook such a salient motive, but I own it is frustrating to always make allowances for such unpredictable irrationality.” He smiles at her. The skin beneath his eyes is red and pouched, and the lines of his face etched with weariness. It is not so long ago that they stood guard over her for a fortnight, all four; a matter of some days. “And it doesn’t come as easily to me as one would hope.”

“Surely as a scientist you must at least agree to its usefulness in engendering birth, or would you rather discover a method to create life in a less messy manner?”

His eyes shutter momentarily, and his smile turns as awkwardly frozen as her own attempt feels. “Birth is a messy affair, by whatever means one seeks to induce it. But sex appears to have less to do with reproduction than one would suspect; whatever Mr. Grey and Ethan did, for instance, was entirely recreational in that respect.”

“And Mr. Grey and I.” The confession is out before she can recall it, but it makes no matter, especially if it nets her the secret floating in Victor’s soul like a leviathan in the deeps. “I was in an asylum for some months; the attending doctors thought it prudent to remove my womb.”

“Hysterectomies are a common practice in that branch of medicine,” he allows. “I cannot speak to the efficacy of it; my interests have never led me to such surgeries.”

“It hasn’t barred the door to my episodes,” she points out tartly. “I gather it is of great concern that lunatics not reproduce.” She suspects also that avoidance of menstrual filth for women who were often incontinent was significant as a motive, but she is trying in her own strange way to befriend Victor at the moment.

Victor assumes an expression of great benevolence that sits uneasily on his visage. “Perhaps they also wished to spare both the mothers and the children the experience of negligent parenting that the former would be unable to prevent and the latter could only mutely suffer.”

“That is hardly limited to lunatics. My father chose to desert me at my mother’s death while I was still prodigiously unwell; Sir Malcolm met his children one month of the twelve if they were fortunate. And we were the lucky ones, who had between us three still two attentive parents.”

“Both mothers,” Victor says, and nods a little grimly. “Mine succumbed to consumption when I was quite a child. My father sent me to school and chose to ignore me on vacations in favour of my more athletic brothers. But you must grant that a lunatic would let an infant starve to death, or in the toils of a fit attempt more direct harm.”

The secret has sunk deeper in him, where a moment before it was looking from his limpid eyes, and Vanessa has given a secret up to no avail. She settles herself more easily on the sopha and reopens her novel. “Of course, Doctor.”

He looks startled at the return to formality, but presently sketches her a sardonic little bow and rises to browse the shelves.

They read in strained silence for some hours, both conscious of the inexorable movement of the sun from horizon to zenith to nadir. Sometime past noon, Vanessa knocks on the cellar door and leaves Sembene his share of dinner, Victor having proven wonderfully at ease in the kitchen, though she dreads to hazard a guess as to which branch of science awarded him the proficiency, or whether it was simply hunger that drove him to expertise.

Sir Malcolm returns at three, and while they are greeting him and making him comfortable, Sembene comes up with the news of Ethan’s sober awakening.