By Jean Marie Ward
London, March 1779
"Vampire, take me!"
The aristocratic fribble in the embroidered taffeta suit closed his eyes and flung back his arms. The knob of his beribboned walking stick clipped a passing waiter just over the ear.
The waiter's heavy wig saved him from permanent injury, but the copper kettle he was carrying swung wide. Scalding coffee arced over the tables of the Cocoa Tree Coffee House, narrowly missing two senior officers of the Admiralty, a clutch of clerks aspiring to better their station, and a peer of the realm who thought he was slumming. The parrot roosting in the rafters scrambled over the joists for a better view.
Former vampire Quentin de Charnay snapped his London Chronicle once. For the past sixty years, Quentin had supported his immortality by sucking souls instead of blood, but he saw no need to publish the fact. Neither occupation could be considered a suitable job for a gentleman, and the Baronet de Charnay was nothing if not a gentleman.
Quentin lifted a single, dark eyebrow. "I beg your pardon."
The fribble gulped. "I said -- " "
I heard. Are you daft? I could call you out for the insult or charge you with slander. And there would be no shortage of witnesses either."
Indeed, every bewigged and powdered head in the coffeehouse craned in the fribble's direction. "They'd rather I call you out," Quentin said. "They haven't seen a good duel since December."
"But I can't fight you!" the fribble gasped, striking his lace festooned throat with his open hand. Saffron yellow powder from the fribble's wig sifted over his regular if somewhat vapid features. "That would be suicide!"
"And offering yourself to a vampire would be…?"
"It's not the same thing at all," the fribble said. "Vampires are blood-drinking fiends who overwhelm the wills of their prey. A man can't help himself if he gets himself killed that way. He can have a decent funeral and be buried in the churchyard as if there was nothing wrong with him. You owe me that much."
"I owe you? For what? I've never seen you before in my life."
His face grim with purpose, the fribble reached inside his coat.
Quentin sailed the Chronicle into the man's face and slammed his arm onto the table. But instead of a pistol, an oval miniature about the size of a lemon popped from the man's fingers and bounced across the table into Quentin's lap.
"Ow!" the fribble complained, nursing his elbow. "There's no need for violence, man."
The parrot squawked, "Blue ruin! Blue ruin!"
Quentin ignored them both. Unfortunately, the miniature could not be dismissed so easily. Beneath the waterfall of artificial curls fashionable at the turn of the century, Quentin stared back at himself. There was no mistaking the narrow face, long blade of nose and not quite prim mouth. Despite the picture's size, the artist even managed to show that tiny nick in Quentin's left eyebrow, the relic of a wound so old Quentin remembered nothing about it.
Damn you, Arabella Randolph, Quentin swore silently. You promised me you burned your studies.
"On the very eve of her wedding, my mother found that picture in a box of her grandmother's effects," the fribble said. "With it was a journal of Great-Grandmother's liaison with a vampire named Quentin de Charnay -- you, sir. The affair ruined Mama's life and mine."
"For the first part," Quentin said through gritted teeth, "I am not a vampire. For the second, how could I ruin your life when I don't even know who you are?"
The fribble blinked his watery eyes in stupefaction. "But I'm George William Chetmondeley-Harburton, IV, eighth earl of Pemberley. Surely you knew."
"No, though the name sounds familiar. Pemberley…" Quentin searched for the context. "Ah, yes, the St. John Smythes of Somerset recently announced your engagement to their eldest daughter -- Sophie, isn't it?"
Pemberley made a strangled clucking noise. His face crumpled like an infant's. Tears squirted from his eyes. Pemberley yanked a lace-trimmed handkerchief the size of the table from yet another interior pocket and mopped his face. But he only succeeded in grinding the yellow powder from his wig into his cheeks and nose.
"Barkeep wants a drink! Wants a drink! Aaaawaaww!" the parrot yodeled.
Patrons the length of the coffeehouse scrambled for their newspapers and coffee cups in a futile attempt to hide from the earl's unseemly display of emotion. Pemberley bawled louder.
"My good man, it can't be that bad," Quentin shoved the earl into the nearest chair. "You're young, relatively. Apparently in good health, and I've never heard an ill word on the 'Change or in the clubs about either your fortune or the lady's. Did she cry off?"
The question started another still louder squall for which Pemberley's sopping tablecloth was patently inadequate. "No," he howled as Quentin handed him a far less showy square of hand-rolled linen.
"Is there something objectionable about her person?"
More waterworks ensued. A waiter appeared with a stack of rough cotton cloths, which Quentin accepted on the earl's behalf.
"She's a goddess," Pemberley snuffled through the napkin Quentin handed him. "A face like the sun." Pemberley honked with great force into the coarse fabric. "Eyes like twinkling stars! If Venus had been born a woman, She would have been she!"
Quentin handed him another napkin. "A rival for her affections, perhaps?"
Pemberley mumbled something that sounded like "consumption" into his napkin, adding in a stentorian bray: "And it's your fault!"
Quentin grasped Pemberley's bruised arm before the earl could bury his face in another napkin. His glare bored into Pemberley's bleary gaze. "What did you say?" he asked in a dangerously low voice.
Pemberley's jaw worked a few times before he managed to reply: "The marriage will not be consummated. I obtain no pleasure from congress with living women. My name will be disgraced. My line will die out."
"So your taste runs to men. You're hardly the first of your class, and you won't be the last. Roger her enough produce an heir, and take yourselves off to your separate pleasures. No one expects a couple of your rank to love each other."
"But I do love her!" In a murmur so soft, Quentin had to strain to hear it, Pemberley added, "It's the congress. I cannot… Not with a living woman. I'm fine with the dead."
Quentin gaped. "You're a -- " he began, thought better of it, dipped his finger in his cooling coffee, and traced the word "necrophile" on top of the table.
Pemberley's stricken expression suggested he thought Quentin was mocking him in another language.
Quentin tried again. "You lie with corpses," he wrote.
Pemberley nodded gravely.
Quentin swept the words away with the side of his hand and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I suppose it makes a mad sort of sense. You believe your great-grandmother had an affair with a vampire, and you conceive your predilection for the dead stems from that affair.
"It's all gammon and spinach, of course." Quentin gestured at the window to his right. "Sunlight. I've made a study of vampires, and I can assure you, sunlight poisons vampires. A vampire wouldn't be caught dead sitting in this chair."
"But the picture looks just like you," Pemberley objected.
"The de Charnays are a very old and stubborn line. The men of my family have worn this face for generations."
"But great-grandmother described how Quentin de Charnay fought duels by moonlight and how he could compel a person's actions with no more than a word."
"Ah, that sounds like my great-grandfather, Richard-Quentin de Charnay, swordsman extraordinaire," Quentin lied cheerfully. "I understand he sheathed his blade in the choicest morsels of two continents before the French deported him to Louisiana.
"Don't judge your great-grandmother too harshly," Quentin continued in a gentler tone. "Richard-Quentin was a master at swaying the impressionable mind. If a woman was pious, he aped her favorite preacher. If she suffered from an excess of morbid sensibility, no doubt he pretended to be a vampire, though obviously he wasn't. Vampires cannot father children, which great-grandfather must have done, or we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"But if de Charnay wasn't a vampire, what does that make me?" Pemberley's moist, slightly protruding eyes stared pleadingly at his companion. His incipient jowls trembled.
Oh no, Quentin told himself firmly, you are not getting sucked into this fribble's problems just because he looks like an injured spaniel. You've loved hundreds of women over the centuries, and none of their descendants ever showed the slightest inclination to sleep with the rotting dead. This whelp is a fluke. He doesn't even look like her.
"Have you always been thus?" Quentin heard himself ask.
Pemberley's head bobbed. "It was the demmed journal that did it. Mama had always been of a romantic disposition -- even before it was fashionable.
"But after Mama read Great-grandmother's journal, she fell in love with Death. She haunted graveyards the length and breadth of England. She frequented gypsies and astrologers. The year before I was born, she persuaded Father to attend several sabbats of the Hellfire Club. But there was no help for it. She couldn't find a vampire to save her soul," Pemberley said. "Eventually, she went into a decline, and one day she died."
"Such is life."
"I suppose so -- not that she was terribly fond of life at the best of times. I remember her drifting through the nursery like a ghost, crooning lullabies about the cool embrace of Death."
Pemberley shuddered, then his eyes drifted shut. The quality of the shivers changed as if, even in retrospect, he found something pleasurable in his repulsion. "Some people said it was because she had no other children. Others said it was the reason why she didn't."
Sentiment is bad for your health, Quentin told himself sternly. Spaniels bite the hands that feed them. That jabbing you feel in the vicinity of your liver is nothing more than indigestion. You know legions of perfectly ordinary men and women whose mothers can recite entire chapters of The Monk at will. Besides, Pemberley reeks of lemon verbena, a scent you abhor.
But Arabella was such a rare armful -- nothing like her lugubrious pup. And Quentin had relished the short nights of that long summer house party after her husband left for the continent.
Under the cover of his raised coffee cup, Quentin surreptitiously tasted his companion's soul. Essentially kind, though foolish and prone to melancholy, Pemberley's soul wasn't one Quentin wanted to add to his collection. But there was nothing wrong with it. Unless you counted that faint taste of otherness.
Quentin rolled a long swallow of coffee around his mouth. There was no help for it. With the gravest misgivings, Quentin gave the earl the direction to his house on St. James Square.
The business between them should've been easy enough to transact. If you believed the legends told in Louisiana, a succubus fed by crushing the heart and soul out of its victim's breast. But that wasn't how it worked at all. The nourishment a succubus required resided in the victim's breath in the same way a vampire's nourishment resided in the blood. Quentin could take as little or as much as he needed by covering a person's mouth with his and drinking the individual's essence as he or she exhaled. Force came into play only if the victim struggled.
Quentin hadn't expected Pemberley to struggle. It wasn't as though the earl was in any danger. One good swig of Pemberley's soul would be enough to tell Quentin everything he needed to know. And Quentin had warned the earl his examination might seem a bit unusual by Harley Street standards. At least Quentin had no intention of forcing the earl to take a purge.
But Quentin forgot there were things far more terrifying to a country-bred aristocrat than emetics.
When Pemberley was shown to the library of Quentin's house the following afternoon, the earl's gaze skittered from the books and papers nesting on Quentin's massive desk, to the overflowing shelves, to the stacks of books on the floor. Piles of books reared up like serpents from the seat cushions of every single chair. Other than the fireplace, the only unbooked spots in the room were a six foot by seven foot swathe of carpet littered with pillows and a somewhat worn sofa longer than six-foot Quentin was tall.
Sweat bloomed on Pemberley's forehead and upper lip, intensifying the lemon verbena scent of his pomade until it burned the inside of Quentin's nostrils. Pemberley stammered, "I say, you have an awful lot of books."
"Where else did you expect me to find the information you need?"
"Yes, but…" Pemberley shook his walking stick at the various piles like a priest dowsing devils with holy water. "Isn't this somewhat excessive?"
Quentin pulled Pemberley toward the sofa."There are worse vices than scholarship."
The tail of Pemberley's oversized wig whipped from side to side with the shaking of his head. He jerked his hand free from Quentin's grasp. Quentin was so startled, the earl might have made good his escape, but the heel of his shoe caught on a two-inch length of exposed carpet fringe.
The earl tumbled backwards over two separate stacks of books and landed hard on his rump in the middle of the scattered cushions. He yelped and scrambled on all fours toward the door.
Quentin stepped between the earl and his goal. "What the devil ails you, man? Take your place on the sofa as we agreed. There's nothing to be afraid of. I don't bite."
Pemberley's gaze traveled up his host's long legs, leapfrogged over each button of his waistcoat, up Quentin's long face to the dark hazel eyes staring down Quentin's long nose at the earl. "But... but...but I've changed my mind."
Pemberley nodded his head vigorously, raining scented powder from his wig over the Turkey carpet. "That's it! I've changed my mind. I'll enter a monastery. That way I can love my Sophie from afar and never soil her unblemished body with my unnatural embraces."
Quentin swatted the earl's shoulder. Of course, even a light blow from the succubus was sufficient to roll the cowering nobleman onto his back and knock the breath from his lungs. With a single hand, Quentin pinned the earl to the carpet like a butterfly to a board.
"It's a little late in the day to be getting squeamish." Quentin increased the pressure on Pemberley's chest. "Now be a good boy and play dead. That way we can get this over and done with before the servants start to wonder what we're about."
"But I'm not that sort!"
"Neither am I." Quentin pinched the earl's nostrils, sucked the breath from his mouth -- And inhaled the foulness of the grave. Quentin recoiled, hawking and gagging. He staggered to his desk and poured himself a full measure of brandy, which he spat, mouthful by mouthful into the fire. And still Quentin could taste the loam and the rotted pork sweetness of the maggots as clearly as if he'd chewed them himself.
"What the hell do you think you're about?" Pemberley leapt to his feet. His wig had slipped from his forehead and his shoulders were powdered yellow. "I should call you out for that… that…"
"Experience?" Quentin offered with a slightly hoarse chuckle. "Of course, it would be suicide. I'm a far better duelist than my great-grandfather was. But perhaps you should make the attempt. You're a natural born ghoul. Your appetites will present no problem after you're dead."
"Are you saying I'm a monster?" Pemberley blanched paler than his powdered suit coat. Quentin guided him to the sofa and handed him a brandy.
"Don't look at it that way. Think how proud you would've made your mother. Natural born ghouls are very rare. I haven't met one in, oh -- " Quentin quickly calculated the years and came up with over 120. " -- a very long time. He was a remarkable necromancer, the best in his field. A touch of the ghoul can be a great advantage in that line of work, and you come by it naturally -- though not from your mother's family, I'll wager. Richard-Quentin liked his ladies warm and very, very lively. If her breath was anything like yours…"
Quentin shook his head "But I can't conceive of it in a Harburton either. You're quite right; they're just not the sort."
Pemberley threw back his drink. "But the Dashwoods are," he moaned.
"There was talk. Well, after father died, my father's sister accused… No, it's unspeakable. Mama wouldn't -- "
"Ah yes, those sabbats your mother attended, ostensibly with your father. Why not? Your father needn't have been Francis Dashwood. There were plenty other sorcerers in his set to choose from. Not that you need to recognize any of them. The earl never renounced you."
"As if that's a comfort to a man in my position! I'm doomed." Pemberley bounced on the sofa cushions for emphasis, shaking loose another shower of powder. "Never to know the sweetness of my Sophie's embrace. I shall take myself off to a monastery and there pine away the remainder of my miserable existence. I shall walk barefoot in the snow and lash myself with thorns at morning and evening prayer."
"Always assuming a monastery would have you. I believe postulants are still expected to make a full confession before receiving even minor orders. If you've consummated your…" Quentin allowed the thought to trail. "The monasteries of my acquaintance take a dim view of that sort of thing. And necromancy is still a hanging offence. Fine end for a Pemberley that."
Pemberley buried his face in his hands.
"However, the situation is not so desperate as you suppose." Quentin seized a tome at random from one of the nearest stack and pretended to scan it. "Those ancient sorcerers who came from noble families faced similar difficulties in giving unto Caesar what was Caesar's. Aha!"
With a great flourish, Quentin stabbed his finger at a column of text.
"You found a cure?"
"Not exactly." In fact, it was a recipe for lentils and water chestnuts. So that's where the Apicius was hiding, Quentin thought. He said, "You can't change a condition that's bred to the bone, but there is a spell which will allow you to fulfill your responsibilities and enjoy your marriage bed."
Setting the open book on his desk, Quentin fished one of his calling cards from a drawer. On the back of the card he wrote two lines:
H' taed Teem
Quentin offered the card to Pemberley, fixing the earl with a gaze which had been bending wills centuries before Mesmerism had a name. When Quentin opened his mouth to speak, the dark music of his voice resonated with command.
"When you and your lady retire for the night, you will whisper in her right ear, 'Meet death' three times. Once you have done this, you will feel her stiffen, then collapse in your arms like a dead thing, and you will perceive her as such. In this fashion you will pleasure yourselves until you expire. When you are done, into her left ear whisper, 'H' tead teem,' three times. This will dispel the glamour and restore your perception of her customary vigor.
"Do you understand?" Quentin asked.
"I understand," Pemberley replied without inflection.
"Then repeat the spell as I have given it to you." It took Pemberley three tries to get it right.
"Very good," Quentin said in his customary voice. "There is a price, however."
The implied threat startled Pemberley from his trance.
"Once you leave here with the spell, you can't set eyes on me again. The text is quite specific on that point. Something to do with the nature of the spell," Quentin said.
"What would happen?"
"I have no idea, but it couldn't be good."
"No, of course not. Otherwise, why prohibit it?"
The earl pursed his lips. The skin of his forehead creased into a fan of wrinkles over his nose. "This won't hurt my darling Sophie, will it?"
"She won't feel a thing," Quentin said with absolute conviction. "Even if you forget the counterspell, the effects of this formula vanish at dawn. If you doubt me, find a willing maid and give it a try."
"I couldn't trifle with my betrothed's affections in that manner!"
Quentin raised both eyebrows.
"Oh. I suppose I should test it, for Sophie's sake," Pemberley conceded. "And a man is expected to plow a furrow or two, if you catch my drift."
"And you must never, ever call on me again."
Pemberley's head bobbed up and down with the funereal solemnity of an undertaker.
Quentin began whistling to himself as soon as his manservant led the earl out of earshot. The one and only Baronet de Charnay had a very fine line in spells, if he did say so himself. For an instant Quentin wondered how Pemberley would explain his peculiar taste in sweet nothings to his very unbespelled bride, but Quentin assured himself his interest was purely academic.
London, One Year Later
By the time Quentin jogged down the steps his favorite gaming hell, the night sky had lightened to a sooty gray. A brisk wind blowing off the Thames had banished the worst of the city's sulfurous fumes. And if Quentin strained his ears, he could almost hear the bright notes of the robin in the distant tootling of the constabulary.
Ah spring, when the nabobs come out to play. Quentin's purse was many times heavier than when he'd entered the establishment, and the coming night's pickings promised to be even better. Should I take this glorious humor home to bed, or surprise the lovely Zazu? Quentin smiled to himself and set his feet on the road to his current mistress's address.
Quentin pivoted on his heel. His hand went automatically to the grip of his sword stick.
Across the street from the club, the driver of a smart, new carriage garlanded with roses gestured frantically at Quentin. One of the driver's hands pointed at the flower-draped door of the carriage. The other hand appeared to be clutching the reins around an oval locket about the size of a lemon.
It couldn't be, Quentin told himself.
The door to the carriage yawned open.
Oh yes, it was. Even with the black scarf tied around the top of his face and his hands pressed over his cheeks, there was no mistaking the excesses of the Earl of Pemberley's tailor or his dreadful scent. And Quentin had to admit with that much coverage there was no question of Pemberley "setting eyes" on his erstwhile benefactor.
A young woman of far more refined tastes listed against the cushions at Pemberley's side. She might even have been pretty but for the peculiar way her eyes bulged. The tip of her tongue protruded from the side of her mouth.
"De Charnay, is that you?" Pemberley whispered.
"It was the last time I looked. Forgive me, is this your wife?"
The woman didn't twitch, and she held her head at such an odd angle to the back of the seat a casual observer might have mistaken her for a wooden stock. Or a corpse.
The hair trimmed close to Quentin's nape lifted away from his neck. No, the woman still breathed. Her soul was intact.
"How long has she been like this?" Quentin demanded. "Did you forget the counterspell?"
"Never! It's nothing like that. I wouldn't have troubled you, except I didn't know where else to turn."
"You did right. Never fear, this can be undone," Quentin promised.
"No. No! You don't understand. There's nothing wrong with the spell or Sophie, except… except…
"It's almost dawn, and she doesn't want to change back."
This story originally appeared in Fantasy, Folklore and Fairy Tales in October 2001
© Jean Marie Ward 1999-2006