THE GHOST AND THE MACHINE
Warning: This story is dark, as in double dark with extra dark and a side of dark. There are references to rape and child abuse, though neither is depicted. There is also murder, manipulation, and a whole lotta chess.
Feedback: email@example.com. If you care to drop me a line, I will respond in your choice of sonnet or mime.
Part One: Pawn
People sometimes ask me what it's like to travel inside a box.
I don't like to answer with sweeping statements, because I think it depends on the box. Mine was quite nice, as boxes go.
Don't ask me about measurements. I didn't have a ruler up my sleeve. But it was long enough for me to lie at full length, and high enough to let me turn over. It was lined with red cloth, like a jewellery-case, and there were slits carved in the lid for airholes. On cold days, they let me take a blanket in there.
The box was strapped to the back of the coach, and that was how we travelled. I was packed away with the rest of the luggage, hidden from any curious eyes. Von Hausen was in the coachman's seat, her face a thundercloud as she whipped along the four black horses. (We went through a lot of black horses over the years, and they never did have names.)
The inside of the coach was reserved for the brains of our little operation, our guiding light and lord protector. That was Diana Rushmore- "Rush", we called her- who, in wintertime, spent each journey wrapped in furs, with her feet propped up on hot bricks, nursing a flask of the best brandy. In the summer, it was lemonade laced with gin.
Von Hausen's bull mastiff, Towser, used to trot alongside the coach, in his younger days. That was before he aged into a grave and portly dog whose fastest pace was a waddling walk. When he couldn't run anymore, Von Hausen began to hoist him into the coachman's seat next to her. She rigged a sort of harness to make sure that he wouldn't tumble off and go splat on the road, and it worked, mostly.
I didn't spend all my time in the box. I wouldn't want to give you that impression. When we were into a long leg of a journey- say, if we were driving overland from Brussels to Cologne- the coach would rumble to a halt as soon as we were out of sight of any town. Then the carriage-frame would shudder, which meant Von Hausen was swinging down from her seat. I'd hear her heavy tramp as she stomped around to the luggage-rack, and then the scraping sound as she undid the hidden catches. The lid of the box would pop open, and as I rose, blinking, Von Hausen would hold up her heavy black cloak to shield me. The cloak stayed up for the few seconds it took me to scramble down from the luggage rack, around the side of the coach, and in the door.
When I slid onto the bench next to Rush, her hand would come over to rest heavily on my knee. At intervals, while the carriage rattled along, she would give me a pleased, possessive little squeeze.
There were thick wooden shutters nailed across the windows of the coach. They kept it dark in there, dark as the bottom of a boot, and that was for my sake.
All of those elaborate precautions were for my sake- the shutters, the box, the cloak. That was the manner of thing that I was: a creature designed to live in dark and secret spaces. For my own safety, I had to be kept tucked away in the black, away from the bustle of the human world. What other choice did Rush have, when a breath of open air or a ray of light was enough to wound me? Left alone under the noonday sun, I would have collapsed, broken apart, and blown away.
I know what that must sound like, but it's not what you think.
* * *
You'll have questions for me, of course.
People have asked me more questions in the past couple of years than in the rest of my life all put together. When I feel like being difficult- and most of the time, these days, I do- I give clipped, inadequate answers, accompanied by a flippant little shrug. I'm sure it's annoying. It's meant to be annoying. I've spent far too much of my life being eager to please, and now I'm past it.
Who am I? Well, I'm me. Where was I born? Paris. When was I born? Eighteen sixteen. How old was I when I left Paris? Ten. Why did I leave Paris? Long story. Where have I been since then? Oh, you know, around. What have I been doing since then? This and that.
Why am I so angry?
(I've been told that when someone asks this question, my eyes glint in a dangerous sort of way.)
I'm angry because it's the best way to get people's attention. Nothing else seems to do the trick. People will go really absurd lengths to avoid noticing other people. It's less complicated for them that way. So, unless you're angry- unless you're making a scene, as Rush would put it- they look straight through you.
If I could change one thing, out of everything that happened, it would be this: I wish I'd learned how to make scenes earlier in my life. I wish I'd learned how to force people to notice me. If I could have done that, then maybe...
Maybe what? Maybe I could have prevented the murder? I don't believe that, not really. Looking back, I can see how inevitable the whole thing was- how, during that last week, events were rushing single-mindedly in one direction, like water running downhill. It was all one unbroken chain of circumstance, from the moment that the carriage pulled up outside the manor right up to the second that the Countess unlocked the door to the red room and beckoned me inside.
I don't think there's anything I could have done which would have altered the outcome one iota. And in particular, I doubt I could have done anything which would have kept her alive. But it's impossible not to think about what could have been different, if only I...
I'm getting ahead of myself. I do that sometimes.
How am I doing these days?
Fine, I guess. Considering.
How did all this happen?
It's complicated. You might want to start by asking how it all began.
How did it all begin?
It began with a game of chess.
* * *
But when did it begin?
In a way, everything started in 1838. That was the year when Rush took me to Vienna, to perform for the Countess.
But in another way, and a more important one, my story begins in 1819. I was three years old then, so I wasn't paying much attention to world events, but interesting things were going on around me. John Franklin was groping his way along the coast of Canada, hunting for the Northwest Passage. King George IV was on the throne of England, eating everything he could lay his pudgy hands on. The newly united American colonies were facing their first major financial crisis. And a miraculous machine known as "The Turk" was being exhibited in London.
Have you heard of the Turk? Perhaps not, though the Turk was still touring Europe not so very long ago. People are apt to forget the things that used to puzzle and delight them. The Turk was an amusing contraption, but that's all it was: a contraption, something in between a wind-up toy and a conjuring trick. Nowadays, people have gone on to new forms of entertainment, like dime novels and opium, leaving the Turk to be remembered mainly by amateur detectives and lovers of chess.
"What was the Turk?" you ask, and even that's a complicated question. What the Turk was and what it seemed to be were two different things. It seemed to be a machine that could play chess. This was what it looked like: a life-size mechanical man, an automaton, dressed in the robes of an Oriental sorcerer, his brown wooden face shiny with varnish. The figure was seated at a wooden cabinet, two-and-a-half feet high, that acted as a table. On top of the cabinet sat an ivory chessboard. The cabinet had two doors in the front. Before each game, a showman would open the doors to reveal two cramped spaces, half-full of clockwork.
When challenged to a game, the mechanical man would judder to life. Its head swung from side to side as it studied the board. Each time the Turk's opponent made a move, the Turk would respond: one wooden hand would swing out, clasp a chessman between wooden fingers, and move it to a new square. All the while, clockwork gears click-clacked and groaned in the cabinet's belly.
That wasn't all the Turk could do. It could nod its head when satisfied, shake its head long-sufferingly if its opponent did something stupid, and sweep all the pieces from the board in a fit of pique if somebody tried to cheat. It could even pronounce the word "Check!" in a grunting, gravelly voice.
And here's the important thing. The Turk usually won. Not always- it had its off days. It lost to the great immortal Philidor in a match at the Café de la Regence, but Philidor was pretty much a god, so that was only natural. Most of the Turk's other opponents crawled away from the board after the game, crushed and humiliated.
How was this possible? How could a clockwork machine out-think the best players of the age? How could a wooden automaton scheme and plan and reason? That was the question, and a lot of clever heads grappled with it without getting anywhere particularly. Some people believed that the showman controlled the Turk's hand by pulling invisible strings. Others argued, sort of vaguely, that it was all done by magnets. Some went to the other extreme, and screeched to anyone who would listen that the thing ran on black magic. Possibly there was a ghost or demon trapped inside.
Many believed that the Turk was actually operated by a human, who hid inside the Turk's cabinet during the game. Problem was, this theory spawned a dozen unanswerable questions. Where did the operator hide when the cabinet doors were opened to expose the machine's clockwork innards? How could the operator, shut up in the cabinet, see the chessboard on the cabinet's top? How could he move the Turk's arm with any accuracy? And even if those problems were solved, how could a full grown man fit inside the cabinet, along with the mess of clockwork? People got around that last problem by suggesting that the operator was a dwarf..or maybe a child.
The thousands of people who saw the Turk in London all had their own theories. And all of them were wrong.
All of them except for one.
When the Turk played its first opponent at No. 4, Spring Gardens, Diana Rushmore had a front-row seat. She returned to the exhibition every night for a week, her eyes slitted and calculating as she watched the automaton play. The other members of the audience staggered out of the hall after each game, laughing in total bewilderment, guessing and speculating. Not Rush. She went straight home to the cheap room she had rented on Broad Street, and drew up a few diagrams, and then got busy, building a chess-playing machine of her own.
She named it "The Rajah." And that's where I come in.
* * *
It was a sultry summer in 1838, and the guesthouse where we stopped on the road to Vienna felt like a bread oven, even in the twilight cool.
As usual, I had been carried up to our hotel room, still inside my box. It was Von Hausen who did the carrying- Von Hausen and two hefty footmen, whom Rush tipped generously so that they wouldn't ask any nosy questions.
There were a few tense moments when a maidservant came in to make up the beds (this being a hotel of a slightly luxurious stripe). But we were used to that kind of emergency, and we reacted in time. An instant after the maid's tentative knock, I was buried below a pile of cushions on the settee. I stayed there for the ten minutes until the maid was gone, breathing shakily through my half-opened mouth.
This was rule one: no-one was allowed to see me, except for Rush, Von Hausen, and Towser. There were twelve rules in all. Some were more difficult than others to live by, but it was rule one that caused the most problems and required the most planning.
Now the door of our hotel room was safely locked and bolted, with our trunks piled against it for good measure, and we were making our supper off of a pair of roast fowl and a loaf of bread, with some celery and cheese to follow. Rush weighed my portions of chicken and bread before we ate, on a little pair of letter-scales which she kept for the purpose. Then she sat back and snapped open her newspaper.
While she read, I focused on my supper. One didn't interrupt Rush. That was rule number three.
Before long, she lowered the paper and smiled at me over the pages, all sly delight. "Do you want to hear something wonderful, Kit?"
I nodded "yes," because, under the circumstances, that was clearly the answer she wanted.
She cleared her throat. "This was written by one of the newspapermen who came to the performance. He wore an absolutely absurd red cravat- not that you would have seen that, of course. And his breath was foul. But he must have had a good time. He writes, 'This week I, with select other gentlemen of Munich, was so fortunate as to be admitted to a private exhibition of the RAJAH, the magnificent chess-playing machine, invention of the ingenious Miss Diana Rushmore.'" Rush paused there, tasting the words, before she adjusted her spectacles and continued. "'The Rajah played five matches against players admitted to have few rivals in France, and none in Germany. In each match, though the Rajah gave the advantage of a pawn and the move to its enemy, the wooden man was victorious. Indeed, I am informed that the Rajah is all but unconquered. In this respect, Ms. Rushmore's machine must be acknowledged to be far superior to that other chess-playing automaton, the TURK of Johannes Maelzel, which in recent years has so often been defeated.'"
Rush stopped reading there, a frown on her face in spite of the praise. I knew why. She was annoyed that the article mentioned the Turk at all. Rush used to tell anyone who would listen that it was silly to compare the Rajah and the Turk- that the Turk was just a primitive example of the art which, in the Rajah, was perfected. This was more or less bunk. So far as I could make out, there were only two differences between the Rajah and the Turk. First, the Rajah was smaller. Second, the Rajah had a little red jewel sewn to the front of its turban.
"I think that last part was unnecessary," Rush said out loud. "Still, the rest of the article is quite good, don't you think, Kit? Kit? Are you listening?"
I was, I was, but I had heard Rush read out this kind of thing at least fifty thousand times before, and it was hard to summon any genuine excitement. Besides, I was preoccupied with a more important matter.
"I want more chicken," I announced.
"Good for you," Rush murmured, flipping pages. "It's important to have goals."
"Can I have more chicken?"
"It's 'May I?' And no, you may not."
"You know the rule."
Rule number six: Rush had to approve everything I ate. This was one of the more wearisome rules, as Rush could be quite strict about it. She always said she was sorry but in our line of work, just how the hell would we manage if I started to put on weight?"
"You've eaten too much today already," Rush went on. "I let you have bread and honey for breakfast, instead of God's honest porridge. I shouldn't have allowed it, but you wheedled so hard. I suppose it's to be expected. Greedy heathen Frenchwomen like you would eat nothing but jam and macaroons, given the opportunity."
She gave me a sweet and tolerant smile, to let me know that she forgave me for my greed and my heathenism, though not necessarily for my Frenchness. Then she turned her attention back to the paper.
Caroline Von Hausen had been silent throughout this exchange, hunched over the card table as she picked at her food. Every so often, she passed a bit of chicken down to Towser, who lay beneath the table with his head on her feet. Unlike me, Von Hausen was allowed to eat as much as she wanted- but she didn't, preferring to live almost entirely on liquid. For days on end, nothing went into her mouth but beer or wine or schnapps or sherry.
It seemed to be taking its toll, too. When I first met Von Hausen, she was the colour of a china doll: white skin, flaxen hair, pink cheeks, eyes blue as a robin's egg. Now she was yellow all over, her face sallow and ill-looking, with a deep orange flush in both eyes. A smell hung around her that I can only describe as being halfway between varnish and overripe fruit. It was almost as though she was rotting. Though she ate so little, her belly seemed bloated; it hung, soft and bulgy, over the waistband of her trousers.
I say "trousers" because Von Hausen usually wore man's clothes when we were travelling. Rush said that women were perfectly capable of travelling without a male escort, but it was best to at least pretend that we had one, to avoid all those tedious explanations and excuses. Von Hausen was tall and big-shouldered, so, with the proper clothes on and her hair tied back, she looked enough like a man to get by. At least from a distance. Rush said it was economical to use Von Hausen that way, and it wasn't as if she was good for much else.
Gnawing on a piece of celery I didn't want, I studied Von Hausen sidelong. She was getting worse, there was no doubt about it. If she went even a day without liquor, she woke up during the night with screaming horrors. And her hands shook almost constantly.
I wondered whether she would die. The prospect didn't frighten me, exactly. The two of us were not friends. Still- still, it would be very strange if she wasn't around any longer.
Rush bought me when I was ten. Or, if you want to get really technical about it, she won me in a game of cards. Same difference. Von Hausen had been there on that jumbled confusing day, and she'd been there every day of the twelve years since. It was hard to imagine what the world would be like if Von Hausen was out of it. But sometimes I thought it would be much improved.
Rush read the newspaper article three times more, then slipped her spring-loaded knife from her sleeve. "Caroline, my scrapbook," she ordered.
Von Hausen pushed her chair back and lumbered away to find the book. I rested my chin on my hands and watched Rush snap out the knife. That thing used to fascinate me when I was younger. There was a button you pressed and it made a spring snap tight and then the blade sprang out of the handle. The handle itself was inlaid with red tortoiseshell. Rush had designed and crafted it herself, and she kept it sharp with a little whetstone that she kept in her other sleeve. The blade snicked cleanly through the newsprint, cutting out the newspaper article in three swift strokes.
"Elbows off the table, Kit," Rush warned me, closing the knife.
I dropped my elbows immediately. The twelve rules didn't say anything about table manners, but annoying Rush was always a bad move, tactically speaking.
Von Hausen stumped back with the scrapbook and dumped it on the table. It was already thick with clippings. Reviews and raves about the Rajah's performances all over Europe. Theories and speculations about how the chess-playing machine worked. Diagrams that showed how a legless man or a midget might be able to fit inside the cabinet. Words like astonishing, astounding, brilliant, genius, marvel. Rush's favourite words.
I eyed the scrapbook, idly, as I finished my celery. I could remember when that scrapbook had only a few pages. We had been at this for a long, long time.
Rush snapped her fingers at Von Hausen without looking up. "Get some paste, Caroline. And move a little more quickly, if you wouldn't mind. It's almost seven o'clock."
(Seven o'clock was my bedtime, except on the nights that the Rajah was performing, or the nights when Rush needed me. Rule number nine.)
Von Hausen shuffled away to make the paste. Rush skimmed the article one more time, and gave a little hum of satisfaction. "This is a good one. This should help me to line up more bookings in Germany. I'm very pleased, Kit. You were at your best, that night in Munich. Truly, you were superb."
"Thank you," I said dutifully, but my attention was still mainly fixed on the platter of food. I really wanted more chicken.
* * *
I suppose you want me to describe what Diana Rushmore was like. People always do. Thing is, I'm not good at it. Maybe because we were together for so many years. Rush was Rush- what else can I possibly be expected to say about her?
But here's my attempt. Rush was a brittle woman, all sharp features and bony corners. The style then was for women to wear sweeping lacy gowns as wide as a piano. Rush, however, had her dresses specially tailored to be narrow and pinched. The whalebone stays of her corset closed around her torso like a row of fangs. She carried a wide deerskin bag which served her as both a purse and a toolkit- it held knives and pincers and chisels as well as banknotes and coins. That's what I think of when I think of Rush. Pincers and knives; leather and old ivory.
Whatever else Rush was, she was a genius. She was born to a semi-prosperous clockmaker in Liverpool, and by the time she was sixteen, she could make just about anything with wheels and pendulums and gears. Elaborate time-pieces that showed the movement of the planets and the moon. Mechanical ballerinas that spun around and around on one toe. When I was still a child, she used to make me clockwork toys using nothing but pasteboard, scissors, string, and wire. I remember a tiny horse that could shuffle across a table, and a tiny dog that wagged its tail. She made me a lot of those in the first few weeks after she won me, when I was crying all the time, and they did make me feel a little better.
She was also a pretty decent mathematician. A monograph she wrote on non-Euclidean geometry was published by l'Académie française, and it made quite a splash, although, of course, she had to submit it under a man's name.
Other than that- let's see. She was forty-nine in 1838, the year we went to Vienna. (I was twenty-two, if you want to know, and Von Hausen was stumbling drunkenly through her thirties.) Rush's hair was still dark, but there were silver wisps over each ear. Her eyes were deep brown, and set close together, with beetling brows looming over them like lichen-encrusted crags. She sometimes wore tortoiseshell spectacles which she didn't need but which, she said, made men feel less threatened when they spoke to her. She was missing one of her lower front teeth, and a gold crown winked in the gap.
There. Is that enough?
* * *
We had a long way to travel the next day, and I spent most of it sleeping- first in my box, and then inside the coach. When I woke in late afternoon, my head was resting in Rush's lap. She must have put it there herself; I'd fallen asleep on the other side of the bench.
I felt sort of punch-drunk, dim and groggy, as you do at the end of a long journey. Beneath my cheek, Rush's skirt was uncomfortably prickly and hot. I tried to pull away from her- slowly, so it wouldn't be too obvious. I didn't really expect to get away with that, and indeed I didn't. Rush's hand came down on the top of my head, like a clamp holding me in place. Her right thumb rubbed back and forth across my cheek. Rush kept her thumbnail long on that hand, and it scraped.
"Why have we stopped?" I whispered.
"To water the horses," Rush told me, her thumb moving back and forth like a slow pendulum. "We're making good time. As long as Caroline doesn't fall headfirst into the well, we ought to reach Vienna this evening."
I shifted my head, but Rush didn't pick up on the hint. Her hand stayed where it was, and I sighed inwardly. I do not like to carry on conversations from such a vulnerable position, but she wasn't giving me much of a choice. "Where are we going in Vienna?"
Rule number eleven was that I wasn't supposed to know where we were headed until we actually arrived. But this was one of the few rules that Rush would occasionally break.
"We're going to Döbling," Rush told me, after a pause so brief that few people would have recognized it as hesitation. "One of the wealthy parts of Vienna."
Of course it was one of the wealthy parts of Vienna. We only performed for the wealthy. The Rajah didn't do charity matinees in workhouses and orphanages. So that didn't tell me much. I fidgeted.
"You want to know more?" Now Rush was speaking in her hushed, confiding tone- the one meant to remind me that it was the two of us against the world. "We've hooked a member of the nobility this time. We're going to be the guests of Countess Maria Beatrice Aloisia Von Kaunitz. She has a villa by the edge of the Wienerwald, the Vienna woods. It's a week's engagement. The Rajah will be playing at least three games for a select audience of well-heeled Austrians. More, if the Countess enjoys herself. How's that, pet? Are you happy with that?"
Private performances for the aristocracy were profitable, so Rush would be in a good mood by the end of the week, so there was that. I let my eyes settle on a chink between the boards that covered the windows of the coach. Sometimes sunshine trickled in between those cracks: exotic, dangerous, terrifying. Now the crack showed just a glimmer of pale anaemic light. I looked away, nerved myself, and asked, "When are we going to go back to Paris?"
"And why would you want to go back to Paris?"
There was a faint edge in Rush's words. Not angry, but getting ready to be. Inwardly, I tensed, but I was careful not to let my voice shake. Rush didn't like it when I was afraid. Most of the time.
"I just think that the Rajah needs a real challenge," I said, carefully keeping my tone even. "The greatest chessmasters in Europe all gather at the Café de la Regence. That's where all the glory is, and we haven't been there in years. What's the point in trawling around Austria, taking on half-drunk barons and successful sausage merchants? Why shouldn't we go right into the dragon's den?"
"Why? I'll tell you why. When we last went to the Café de la Regence, you lost. Twice."
"I won twelve times."
"Not good enough."
"I said not good enough, Kit. Are you arguing with me?"
"No arguing" was rule number two. That one wasn't flexible. I forced myself to quiet, lying still as she stroked my hair. But that didn't stop me from feeling cranky about the situation.
So I lost a couple of chess matches the last time we were in Paris- or, rather, the Rajah lost a couple of matches. Frankly, I didn't think that it was fair for Rush to get shirty about it, considering that I was fifteen years old at the time, and considering that the Café de la Regence is a lodestone for the greatest chess players of the age. The great immortal Philidor used to play there, and so did his nephew, the not-quite-as-great-or-as-immortal-as-Philidor-but-almost Jacques Mouret.
Mouret and Philidor, Philidor and Mouret: they were the titans in the world of chess, the brightest stars in the firmament. The Rajah never got to play against them, unfortunately. The great immortal Philidor was dead by the time the Rajah rolled into Paris. The not-quite-as-great-but-almost Mouret was still alive, and Rush invited him to come and do battle with the mechanical man, but he sent back a not-very-polite note of refusal. She sent him another challenge, and he sent back a dead rat. It was shaved, and on its naked back, in red ink, he'd written, tersely, "No." Which was about as clear as a snub as you could get.
So I didn't get to face Mouret, which irked me exceedingly. But I did cross swords with a bunch of other luminaries- St. Amant, Boncour, Sasias, Lecrivain- and oh, the matches were glorious. These were players who took chess more seriously than breathing, and who approached each game like it was the Napoleonic War.
It was Lecrivain and Sasias who beat me, and when I say they beat me, I mean they took me apart into little, little pieces and laughed when they were done. It was beautiful. I've never enjoyed losing so much in my life. Rush felt differently, though, and we hadn't braved an exhibition with the grandmasters of Paris in the seven years since.
Instead, I spent most of my time thrashing players so dense that they didn't know the difference between a pawn and a pawn shop. Where was the fun in that?
The warmth of the day made me drowsy, and I was just about to drop off to sleep again, with my head on Rush's lap, when a fist pounded on the carriage door. Caroline Von Hausen's fist. She had big, meaty hands, and the blows sounded like someone was hammering on the boards with an entire smoked ham.
"Come in," Rush called. Then, to me: "Move over."
I scrambled up and off of her before she changed her mind. Meanwhile, the door swung ajar and Von Hausen's head popped through the gap. Rush must have given her money for brandy, because her face was so red that she could have stood on a pole in the harbour and served as a signal to oncoming ships. Maybe that was why she forgot rule four, and pulled the door all the way open.
Air swirled into the carriage- dangerous outside air, with its faint odour of smoke and dung and leaves. Von Hausen's bulky body was rimmed with bright sun. Behind her, corn-fields stretched out to a far horizon.
Space. Immediately, my breath caught. Space, and air, and light. All the terrors of the void beyond the carriage assaulted me through the open door. In seconds, they brought on my old trouble. My chest cramped, as if iron bands had snapped shut around it, squeezing my lungs flat. I drew a strangled breath, but it felt like my windpipe was blocked with wads of cotton. I couldn't get any air. My vision began to spin, as though the carriage was whipping in circles, and my heart pounding so hard that I fancied I could hear my ribs crack.
The worst part of an attack wasn't the dizziness and choking and nausea, but the fear, the gut-twisting, soul-churning fear. Every time I had an attack, I knew that it would be the one to kill me.
This is the one, this time I won't survive. I was going to choke to death on the floor of the carriage, ribs splintering like old firewood as my heart burst through my chest wall. All because that bitch Von Hausen had opened the door to the horror beyond. I pressed myself back against the seat, as far away from the outside world as I could get.
Rush saw, and her eyes flashed. "Caroline, you stupid beast!" she hissed, wheeling on the hulking woman. "Get in or stay out, but close the door!"
Von Hausen blinked for several seconds at that. She wasn't an idiot, in spite of appearances, so it must have been the heat and the brandy which made her sluggish.
High colour dashed Rush's cheeks. "Close the damn door, you useless animal! Don't you see Kit's having one of her spells?"
Von Hausen managed to rouse herself from her stupor and clamber up onto the carriage bed. At her height, she had to bend almost double to get in. She pulled the door shut.
As soon as that slice of sunlight disappeared, and the fresh breeze was replaced by the familiar stuffiness of the coach compartment, my breathing began to ease. The iron bands around my chest loosened, and I gulped air. Rush arched an eyebrow at me, and though I still felt sick and dizzy, I nodded, letting her know that I was all right.
Rush's bony fingers drummed on her knee, click click click, as she studied Von Hausen. "Rule four, Caroline," she said quietly. "Rule four. Don't expose Kit to the outdoors. You know better than to break the rules. Or at least you should. How can I help you remember? Shall I carve all twelve of them into your back, and scrub the cuts with pepper?"
After a pause of ten heartbeats, Von Hausen shook her head, no.
"Very well. Don't do it again. Now apologise."
"Not to me, oaf! To Kit!"
Bloodshot eyes swivelled to me. They narrowed as Von Hausen said, "Sorry, Kit" in a tone that was anything but sincere.
I gave her a nasty glare over Rush's shoulder. Like hell she was sorry. She would dangle me out a window by the ankles if she thought for a minute she could get away with it. Never mind that I would choke to death, just from the terror of being exposed to that much open space.
Rush seemed satisfied, though. She sank back against the pillowed bench. "Now. Caroline. What did you want to speak to me about?"
It took a while longer for Von Hausen to collect her brandy-sodden thoughts. "There are men in the road. They say they want a toll."
"A toll. Money."
"I know what it means, brute. Honestly- this degenerate modern world. Everyone is looking to make a profit." Rush combed her fingers through her hair, let out a sigh, and then bent so she could rummage in her bag. For an instant, I expected her to pull out her purse, but I should have known better. When she straightened, she had her old flintlock pistol clasped in one fist.
Von Hausen's eyebrows lifted briefly at the sight of the gun. "Do you need help?"
"No, I'll handle it. I'm just in the mood. Stay with Kit. I'll be back."
Rush slipped from the coach, careful to open the door only a fraction, so that only the faintest wisp of outside air swirled in. Von Hausen and I sat motionless, sizing each other up, as Rush's footsteps crunched on the gravel outside. When the footsteps grew distant, Von Hausen lunged, got me by one ear, and twisted hard. This was unpleasant, but not unexpected, and I reacted fast, digging my fingernails into Von Hausen's fleshy arms until I heard her grunt. We grappled only briefly, then tore away from each other, panting.
"What the hell did you do?" she demanded in a hoarse whisper.
"I didn't do anything!" I snarled, backing further away, out of her reach.
"You pissed her off somehow. She was in a good mood this morning."
"When has Rush ever- ever- stayed in a good mood for the whole day?"
One ham-fisted hand pounded on the side of the carriage in frustration. "Would it kill you to keep her happy? Would it kill you? For the love of God, you brat, she spoils you like a child. The least you can do is make the effort to keep her sweet."
She should have known better. It took so much effort to keep Rush sweet that the project usually wasn't worthwhile.
"Go to hell, Von Hausen," I told her, adjusting my shirt and trousers, which had gotten crumpled in all the action. "Just go directly to hell and drive a coach for the devil and his wizards. It's not my job to get you out of trouble."
She squinted so that her eyes were just little black dots in the fleshy folds of her face. "If I punch you through a cushion, it doesn't leave any marks. Remember when we found that out?"
I did remember. Bad night. Bad, bad night. But I shrugged as if the threat was nothing. "Whether you leave marks on me or not, I can still tell Rush."
"Won't be any proof."
"Proof or not, which of us do you think she's going to believe?"
Bushy eyebrows lowered themselves over those piggy eyes. "I thought we agreed that you weren't going to run crying to Rush anymore."
"I thought we agreed that you weren't going to pummel me senseless anymore. Don't push me, Caroline."
Addressing Von Hausen by her Christian name was a good, dependable way to annoy her, and sure enough, her nostrils flared. Von Hausen's morals were heavy, ponderous and German, like she was herself. She didn't like me to call her "Caroline" because she didn't think it was proper for a girl to be so familiar when speaking to her elders and betters (her phrase). I called her "Von Hausen" because there was no way I was going to call her "Ma'am."
The atmosphere in the carriage was growing tenser, and I positioned myself to kick Von Hausen in the stomach if she made another lunge for me. In the end, I didn't have to. The door handle rattled, and Rush slipped back inside, looking flushed but pleased.
"They decided that they didn't want to charge us a toll after all," she announced. "Funny how a glimpse of a gun can change people's minds. Out you go, Caroline, and get us moving. We have a lot of distance to cover before sundown. And we still have to pick up a Gregory."
* * *
By "pick up a Gregory," Rush meant that we had to hire a man.
We had quite a few talents between the three of us, and Von Hausen, as I've said, made a fairly convincing man from a distance, but sometimes we did need someone with actual testicles. For example, when Rush negotiating over the price for a performance by the Rajah, it helped a lot to have someone with a gigantic bushy moustache stand around and look menacing. (She tried more than once to put a moustache on Von Hausen, but it never really looked right.)
When we needed a man, Rush would go to the nearest tavern, find a drunk, soak him in cold water until he was more or less sober, stuff him into a decent suit, and then introduce him to interested parties as her Uncle Gregory. We'd hired dozens of Uncle Gregorys over the years. They stayed around for only so long as their menacing moustachioed presence was necessary, after which Rush poured a few stiff drinks into them and tossed them out the door.
As you must have guessed by now, Rush liked to work with drunks. She used to say that they weren't particularly reliable but they were very very very predictable, which was almost as good.
"With drunks, you know where you stand," she would say. "They want to drink liquor and they want to get pissed and they want to pass out someplace where a horse won't step on them. Give them that and they're yours forever. People are much harder to deal with if they want things like love, and job satisfaction, and life eternal."
It was a callous point of view, perhaps, but I'm not at all sure that she was wrong.
* * *
To prepare for our grand entrance into the home of the Countess, we stopped at a small and seedy inn. No maids and fluffed pillows there- just greasy table-tops and cockroaches the size of small badgers.
That's how Rush described it, anyway. Lucky for me, I didn't have to see the place, because I spent those few hours shut up in my box on the back of the coach. Rush and Von Hausen took turns going inside while the other guarded the carriage. Though I couldn't watch what was happening, I could picture it. Rush would find a Gregory in the inn's tap-room to act as our coachman during the last leg of the trip. Von Hausen would wash in a basin of murky water, then change from her man's clothes into the black maidservant's dress that she wore when she had to appear in public and look respectable. It was at least seven years old, that dress, and it had gone blackish-green at the hems, like tarnished metal.
There was nothing for me to do while they were getting ready, so I curled up in my box as comfortably as I could, and fell asleep again.
It strikes me that I am writing an awful lot about naps. Naps probably aren't thrilling to read about. Some small part of me is inclined to gloss over this part of my history and skip straight to the bits with blood and violence. But- as I may have mentioned- I am past that stage in my life when I was eager to be pleasant and accommodating. This is my story, and I'm telling it for my own sake more than for yours, and I'm trying to tell the truth and the truth is that I took a lot of naps when I was with Rush. Sleeping is the best way to make time pass quickly, and if I hadn't had a way to make the time pass quickly, I would have gone stark raving mad before the age of sixteen. If you spent half of your life being carted around Europe in a locked packing crate, you would take a lot of naps yourself.
But if it bores you to read about naps, then go away and read Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. I won't be offended.
Still here? Good.
I took a nap.
Or at least, I drifted, somewhere in that half-aware state where minutes slide by as if they've been greased, and where you dream in spectacular colours. I only let myself come fully awake when I felt the carriage rattle to a final halt.
This is what Rush and Von Hausen saw when the carriage rolled up to the manor: A tall grey house among tall grey trees in the grey twilight. A long lawn of grass had crisped in the summer heat to pale yellow, and the windows- most of them cracked, all of them dirty- were tinted sepia. A long gravel path, untended, and a ramshackle set of outbuildings completed the picture. Loose planks rattled, even in the light breeze.
I can imagine, writing this, how Rush's lip must have curled as she studied it. This wasn't a glamorous residence frequented by the well-to-do class of Vienna. It was almost a ruin. The kind of place you might come across in the depth of the woods after a few days of hungry wandering. And if you did come across it, you would probably decide to take your chances in the wolf-infested wood, rather than knock at the door and risk the whole house tumbling down around you.
I couldn't see any of this from my vantage point inside the box, of course. But even I heard the screaming.
It began without warning, and it began as a high-pitched wail. It sank lower, becoming a moan, then almost a gurgle, and then it whipped back up the register, shrill and deafening. It seemed to come from a long way off...but somehow the noise cut through distance, cut through the thick planking and crushed velvet that shielded me from everything.
I almost yelped myself, hearing it, but just in time I stuffed my fist in my mouth and bit hard.
Hard knuckles rapped on the lid of my box, and then a mouth spoke close to one of my breathing holes. "Still alive in there?"
Von Hausen. I answered with a whispered, "Fine."
"Rush said to tell you, sit tight. It might be an hour or so before we get you inside."
"Fine," I whispered again. Then: "Who's screaming?"
"Isn't it obvious?" There was a touch of relish in her voice, now. "That's the ghost."
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