Florence Stoker daintily tinkled her little bell, not to summon the maid but to call her parlour to attention. The ornament was aluminium, not silver. The clatter of tea-taking and conversation died. The company turned to play audience to their hostess.
'An announcement is imminent,' Florence declared, so delighted that the lilt of Clontarf, usually rigorously suppressed, insinuated itself into her tone.
Beauregard was suddenly a prisoner in himself. With Penelope on his arm he could hardly refuse the fence, but the situation was instantly different. For some months, he had teetered on the brink of a chasm. Now, screaming inside, he plunged towards the doubtless jagged rocks.
'Penelope, Miss Churchward,' Beauregard began, pausing then to clear his throat, 'has done me the honour...'
Everyone in the parlour understood at once, but he still had to get the words out. He wished for another gulp of the pale tea Florence served in exquisite bowls, in the Chinese fashion.
Penelope, impatient, finished for him. 'We're to be married. In the Spring, next year.'
She slipped her slim hand about his own, gripping tight. When a child, her favourite expression had been 'but I want it now.' His face must be flushed scarlet. This was absurd. He hardly qualified as a swooning youth. He had been married before... Before Penelope, Pamela. The other Miss Churchward, the elder. That must cause remark.
'Charles,' said Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming, 'congratulations.'
The vampire, smiling sharply, pumped his free hand. Beauregard assumed Godalming knew how bone-crushing was his un-dead grip.
His fiancee was detached from him and surrounded by ladies. Kate Reed, by virtue of her spectacles and unruly hair the perfect Penelope's favourite confidante, helped her sit and fanned her with admiration. She chided her friend for keeping the secret from her. Penelope, honey over salt, told Kate not to be such a drip. Kate, one of those new women, wrote articles about bicycling for Tit-Bits, being currently much excited by something called a 'pneumatic tyre'.
Penelope was fussed over as if she had announced an illness, or an expected baby. Pamela, never far from mind when Penelope was present, had died in childbirth, her huge eyes screwed tight with pain. In Jagadhri, seven years ago. The child, a boy, had not survived his mother by a week. Beauregard did not care to remember that he had had to be dissuaded from shooting dead the fool of a station doctor.
Florence was conferring with Bessie, her one remaining maid. Mrs Stoker dispatched the dark-eyed girl on a private mission.
Whistler, the grinning American painter, elbowed aside Godalming, and playfully thumped Beauregard's arm.
'There's no hope for you, Charlie,' he said, stabbing the air in front of Beauregard's face with a fat cigar. 'Another good man fallen to the enemy.'
Beauregard successfully sustained a smile. He had not intended to announce his engagement to Mrs Stoker's after-dark gathering. Since his return to London, he had been less frequently a guest at the get-togethers. Florence's position as a hostess to the fashionable and noted remained secure, though the question of her vanished husband hovered about always. No one had the courage or the cruelty to enquire after Bram, who was rumoured to have been removed to Devil's Dyke after an altercation with the Lord Chamberlain on a point of official censorship. Only the distinguished intervention of Henry Irving, Stoker's employer, prevented Bram's head from joining that of his friend Van Helsing outside the Palace. Lured by Penelope to this much-reduced gathering, Beauregard noted other absences. No vampires were present, aside from Godalming. Many of Florence's former guests - notably Irving and his leading lady, the incomparable Ellen Terry - had turned. Presumably others did not wish to associate even with the rumour of Republican sentiments, though the hostess, who encouraged debate at her after-darks, often made mention of her lack of interest in politics. Florence - whose tireless struggle to surround herself with men far more brilliant and women marginally less pretty than herself Beauregard had to admit he found faintly irritating - entertained no question about the right of the Queen to rule, no more than she would query the right of the earth to revolve around the sun.
Bessie returned with a dusty bottle of champagne. Everyone discreetly set down their tea-bowls and saucers. Florence gave the maid a tiny key and the girl opened a cabinet, disclosing a small forest of glasses.
'There must be a toast,' Florence insisted, 'to Charles and Penelope.'
Penelope was by his side again, holding fast his hand, showing him off.
The bottle was passed to Florence. She regarded it as if uncertain which end could be opened. She would normally have a butler to perform uncorking duties. Momentarily, she was lost. Godalming stepped in, moving with a quicksilver grace combining speed with apparent languor, and took the bottle. He was not the first vampire Beauregard had seen, but he was the most perceptibly changed since his turn. Most new-borns fumbled with their limitations and capabilities, but His Lordship, with the poise of generations of breeding, had adapted perfectly.
'Allow me,' he said, draping a napkin over his arm like a waiter.
'Thank you, Art,' Florence babbled, 'I'm so feeble...'
He flashed a one-sided smile, baring a long eye-tooth, and dug a fingernail into the cork, then flipped it out of the bottleneck as if tossing a coin. Champagne gushed and Godalming filled the glasses Florence held beneath the bottle. His Lordship accepted mild applause with a handsome grin. For a dead man, Godalming practically burst with life. Every woman in the room was fixated upon the vampire. Not entirely excluding Penelope, he could not help but notice.
His fiancee did not much resemble her cousin. Except sometimes, when, catching him unaware, she would produce some phrase of Pamela's or make a trivial gesture that exactly duplicated a mannerism of his late wife's. Of course, there were also the Churchward mouth and those eyes. When he first married, eleven years previously, Penelope had been nine. He recollected a somewhat nasty child in a pinafore and sailor hat, deftly manipulating her family so the household revolved around her axis. He remembered sitting on the terrace with Pamela, and watching little Penny taunt the gardener's boy to tears. His bride-to-be still had a sharp tongue sheathed in her velvet mouth.
Glasses were distributed. Penelope managed to accept hers without for a moment leaving go of his hand. She had her prize and would not let it escape.
The toast fell, of course, to Godalming. He raised his glass, bubbles catching the light, and said, 'for me this is a sad moment, as I experience a loss. I've been beaten out again, by my good friend Charles Beauregard. I shall never recover, but I acknowledge Charles as the better man. I trust he will serve my dearest Penny as a good husband should.'
Beauregard, cynosure of all eyes, experienced discomfort. He did not like to be looked at. In his profession, it was unwise to attract notice of any kind.
'To the beautiful Penelope,' Godalming toasted, 'and the admirable Charles...'
'Penelope and Charles,' came the echo.
Penelope giggled like a cat as the bubbles tickled her nose, and Beauregard took an unexpectedly healthy swig. Everyone drank except Godalming, who set his glass down untouched on the tray.
'I am so sorry,' Florence said, 'I was forgetting myself.'
The hostess summoned Bessie again.
'Lord Godalming does not drink champagne,' she explained to the girl. Bessie understood and unbuttoned her blouse at the wrist.
'Thank you, Bessie,' Godalming said. He took her hand as if to kiss it, then turned it over as if to read her palm.
Beauregard could not help but feel slightly sickened, but no one else even made mention of the matter. He wondered how many were assuming a pose of indifference, and how many were genuinely accustomed to the habits of the thing Arthur Holmwood had become.
'Penelope, Charles,' Godalming said, 'I drink to you...'
Opening his mouth wide on jaw-hinges like a cobra's, Godalming fastened on to Bessie's wrist, lightly puncturing the skin with his pointed incisors. Godalming licked away a trickle of blood. The company were fascinated. Penelope shrank closer to Beauregard's side. She pressed her cheek to his shoulder but did not look away from Godalming and the maid. Either she was affecting cool or the vampire's feeding did not bother her. As Godalming lapped, Bessie swayed unsteadily on her ankles. Her eyes fluttered with something between pain and pleasure. Finally, the maid quietly fainted and Godalming, letting her wrist go, caught her deftly like a devoted Don Juan, holding her upright.
'I have this effect on women,' he said, teeth blood-rimmed, 'it is most inconvenient.'
He found a divan and deposited the unconscious Bessie on it. The girl's wound did not bleed. Godalming did not appear to have taken much from her. Beauregard thought she must have been bled before to take it so calmly. Florence, who had so easily offered Godalming the hospitality of her maid, sat beside Bessie and bound a handkerchief around her wrist. She performed the operation as if tying a ribbon to a horse, with kindness but no especial concern.
For a moment, Beauregard was dizzy.
'What is it, dear-heart,' Penelope asked, arm sliding around him.
'The champagne,' he lied.
'Will we always have champagne?'
'As long as it is what you wish to drink.'
'You're so good to me, Charles.'
Florence, her nursing done, was swarming around them again.
'Now, now,' she said, 'there'll be plenty of time for that after the wedding. In the meantime, you must be unselfish and share yourselves with the rest of us.'
'Indeed,' said Godalming. 'For a start, I must claim my right as the vanquished sir knight.'
Beauregard was puzzled. Godalming had blotted the blood from his lips with a handkerchief, but his mouth still shone, and there was a pinkish tinge to his upper teeth.
'A kiss,' Godalming explained, taking Penelope's hands in his own, 'I claim a kiss from the bride.'
Beauregard's hand, fortunately out of Godalming's view, made a fist, as if grasping the handle of his sword-stick. He sensed danger, as surely as in the Natal when a black mamba, the deadliest reptile on earth, was close by his unprotected leg. A discreet cut with a blade had separated the snake's venomous head from the remainder of its length before harm could come to him. Then he had good cause to be thankful for his nerves; now, he told himself he was overreacting.
Godalming drew Penelope close and she turned her cheek to his mouth. For a long second, he pressed his lips to her face. Then, he released her.
The others, men and women, gathered around, offering more kisses. Penelope was almost swamped with adoration. She wore it well. He had never seen her prettier, or more like Pamela.
'Charles,' said Kate Reed, approaching him, 'you know... um, congratulations... that sort of thing. Excellent news.'
The poor girl was blushing scarlet, forehead completely damp.
'Katie, thank you.'
He kissed her cheek, and she said 'gosh'.
Half-grinning, she indicated Penelope. 'Must go, Charles. Penny wants...'
She was summoned over to examine the marvellous ring upon Penelope's dainty finger.
Beauregard and Godalming were by the window, apart from the group. Outside, the moon was up, a faint glow above the fog. Beauregard could see the railings of the Stoker house, but little else. His own home was further down Cheyne Walk; a swirling yellow wall obscured it as if it no longer existed.
'Sincerely, Charles,' Godalming said, 'my congratulations. You and Penny must be happy. It is an order.'
'Art, thank you.'
'We need more like you,' the vampire said. 'You must turn soon. Things are just getting exciting.'
This had been raised before. Beauregard held back.
'And Penny too,' Godalming insisted. 'She is lovely. Loveliness should not be permitted to fade. That would be criminal.'
'We shall think about it.'
'Do not think too long. The years fly.'
Beauregard wished he had a drink stronger than champagne. Close to Godalming, he could almost taste the new-born's breath. It was untrue that vampires exhaled a stinking cloud. But there was something in the air, at once sweet and sharp. And in the centres of Godalming's eyes, red points sometimes appeared like tiny drops of blood.
'Penelope would like a family.' Vampires, Beauregard knew, could not give birth in the conventional manner.
'Children?' Godalming said, fixing his gaze on Beauregard. 'If you can live forever, surely children are superfluous to requirements.'
Beauregard was uncomfortable now. In truth, he was unsure about a family. His profession was uncertain, and after what had happened with Pamela...
He was tired in his head, as if Godalming were leeching his vitality. Some vampires could take sustenance without drinking blood, absorbing the energies of others through psychical osmosis.
'We need men of your sort, Charles. We have an opportunity to make the country strong. Your skills will be needed.'
If Lord Godalming had an idea of the skills he had developed in the service of the Crown, Beauregard supposed the vampire would be surprised. Since India, he had been in Shanghai, at the International Settlement, and in Egypt, working under Lord Cromer. The new-born laid a hand upon his arm, and gripped almost fiercely. He could hardly feel his own fingers.
'There will never be slaves in Britain,' Godalming continued, 'but those who stay warm will naturally serve us, as the excellent Bessie has just served me. Have a care, lest you wind up the equivalent of some damned regimental water-bearer.'
'In India, I knew a water-bearer who was a better man than most.'
Florence came to his rescue, and guided them back into the mainstream. Whistler was recounting the latest instalment of his continuing feud with John Ruskin, savagely lampooning the critic. Grateful to be eclipsed, Beauregard stood near a wall and watched the painter perform. Whistler, accustomed to being the 'star' of Florence's after-darks, was obviously happy the distraction of Beauregard's announcement had passed. Penelope was lost somewhere in the crowd.
He had cause to wonder again whether he had selected a proper path, or even if the decision had been his own to take. He was the victim of a conspiracy to entrap him in the webs of femininity, orchestrated between China tea and lace doilies. The London to which he had returned in May differed vastly from that he had left three years ago. A patriotic painting hung above the mantel: Victoria, plump and young again, and her fiercely moustachioed, red-eyed consort. The unknown artist posed no threat to Whistler's pre-eminence. Charles Beauregard served his Queen; he supposed he must also serve her husband.
The doorbell rang just as Whistler made an amusing speculation, perhaps unsuited to predominantly feminine company, regarding the long-ago annulment of his hated enemy's marriage. Irritated at the interruption, the painter resumed his flow as Florence, herself irritated because Bessie was unavailable for the menial task, hurried off to answer her door.
Beauregard noticed Penelope sitting near the front, laughing prettily as she pretended to understand Whistler's insinuations. Godalming stood behind her chair, wrists crossed under his evening coat in the small of his back, the sharp points of his fingers dimpling out the cloth. Arthur Holmwood was no longer the man Beauregard had known when he left England. There had been a scandal, shortly before his turning. Like Bram Stoker, Godalming had sided with the wrong lot when the Prince Consort first came to London. Now he had to prove his loyalty to the new regime.
'Charles,' Florence said, quietly enough not to interrupt Whistler further. 'There is a man for you. From your club.'
She gave him a calling card. It bore the name of no individual, just the simple words. THE DIOGENES CLUB.
'This is in the nature of a summons,' he explained. 'Make my apologies to Penelope.'
He was in the hallway, Florence following close behind. He took his own cloak, hat and cane. Bessie would not be up to her duties for a while yet. He hoped, for the sake of Florence's dignity, the maid would be available to see to the guests when the time came for their departure.
'I'm sure Art will see Penelope home,' he said, instantly regretting the suggestion. 'Or Miss Reed.'
'Is this serious? I'm sure you don't have to leave so soon...'
The messenger, a close-mouthed fellow, waited out in the street, a carriage at the kerb beside him.
'My time is not always my own, Florence.' He kissed her hand. 'I thank you for your courtesy and kindness.'
He left the Stoker house, stepped across the pavement, and climbed up into the carriage. The messenger, who had been holding the nearside door open, joined him. The driver knew their intended destination, and immediately set off. Beauregard saw Florence closing her door against the cold. The fog thickened and he looked away from the house, settling in to the steady motion of the carriage. The messenger said nothing. Although a summons from the Diogenes Club could mean no good news, Beauregard was relieved to be out of Florence's parlour and away from the company.
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