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.
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Part Two: Queen
Here is something I remember.
I was frightened of the dark when I was small. This was way back when, in the years before Rush won me in that game of cards and took me away.
Back then I slept in a trundle bed in a room that smelt of hazelnuts, and my mother didn't come home until late at night. While I waited for her, I would listen to street noises through the open window- the breaking of bottles, the shop girls tittering as boys led them down dark alleyways. It all sounded very sinister, and I wasn't even sure whether the sounds were human. We lived near a churchyard, and I suspected that the racket came from spirits who had somehow blundered their way out of their graves.
Then there was Rush, and I wasn't frightened of the dark anymore. There were other and more immediate things to worry about.
Besides, after Rush won me, I almost always slept in the same room as Von Hausen. It was comforting to hear her gurgling snores a few feet away, when I was half asleep. Not because I thought she would lift a finger to protect me from monsters- hell no- but if any monsters did find their way in, surely they would eat her first. She was bigger.
So I stopped worrying about ghosts and ghouls and goblins and such things, but I didn't stop hearing about them. Sometime in her gloomy German childhood, Von Hausen had learned a large number of gloomy German folktales, the kind in which children get sold to the devil by their parents or swallowed up by ogres and giants. That was what passed for entertainment where Von Hausen came from. No wonder she drank.
When I was still small, Von Hausen would sit me down and tell me one of those gruesome tales every so often. I am still not sure whether she was trying to entertain me or make me suffer. Maybe a little of both.
Von Hausen had a short attention span, so she rarely told a story all the way through. Most of the time, she would fall asleep halfway through the worst part, or she'd just start mumbling meaningless things. As a result, I was twenty before I found out that "Hansel and Gretel" had a happy ending, and even that I learned completely by accident. Von Hausen always broke off the story at the part where Gretel is the witch's slave, forced to work while being fed on nothing but crab-shells, and Hansel's stuck in the cage. I always sort of assumed that things stayed that way forever.
Likewise, the Von Hausen version of "Red Riding Hood" ended as soon as the girl got eaten.
Leave it to Von Hausen to hear a scream and think of ghosts. And leave it to Von Hausen to try to scare me- forgetting, as she often did, that I was no longer a ten-year-old child.
* * *
The screams choked off after a few minutes, but no-one, not a footman or a groom or a butler or even a gardener, came out to meet the black carriage. Rush paced up and down by the back of the coach, muttering curses in seven different languages. Von Hausen loomed, shifting her weight from side to side every so often- I could tell by the clattering of the pebbles beneath her. Towser snuffled somewhere around the wheels, and then flumped down with a heavy sigh. Our new Uncle Gregory whistled tunelessly.
I considered taking yet another little nap, but it was too hot with the sun baking the lid of my box. Instead, I played out chess sequences in my head: openings and endgames.
It was an hour, perhaps, before quick footsteps hurried along the path. Someone, at last, had come to meet us.
The footsteps came to a halt, near the back of the carriage, near enough that I could hear the unfamiliar voice through my breathing holes: "Are you Diana Rushmore?"
It was a woman's voice. I closed my eyes halfway, assessing it. Forty years old? No, more like thirty, or even twenty-five. She was deliberately deepening her voice. Maybe she was worried that Rush wouldn't take her seriously otherwise.
"I am Diana Rushmore," Rush announced, her tone pure ice. "And this is an outrage."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You should. The 'Rajah' is the perfection of machine intelligence, the greatest mechanical marvel of our time. It has been exhibited before half of the crowned heads of Europe. Tsar Nicholas himself has been expressing interest, I'll have you know. If I agree to go miles out of my way to exhibit the Rajah at a private home, I don't expect to be ignored at the front door like a man selling carpets!"
Now the stranger's voice, too, became frosty. "I assure you, it was not meant as an insult."
"How else am I to understand it? Is it an Austrian custom to ignore your guests until they give up and go away?"
"I would have come out earlier, but I was briefly detained in the house, and...and your coachman just fainted. You do realize that your coachman just fainted?"
"He'll be fine."
"You do realize that your coachman stinks of liquor?"
"Don't change the subject! If I were you, I wouldn't count on being employed by the Countess much longer. She all but begged me to bring the Rajah here. I doubt she'll jump for joy when she finds out that you left me on the doorstep to perish from thirst or be pecked to death by cuckoos. Who are you? The housekeeper?"
If Rush's voice had been ice before, the stranger's voice was chipped diamond. "My name, Miss Rushmore, is Eleanor Maria Magdalena Von Kaunitz."
There followed the kind of sick silence that tends to follow a horrible mistake. Rush was as angry as ever, but now she had to be polite, and that would make her angrier. I curled my toes unhappily. Someone was going to get it, later on. I just hoped it wouldn't be me.
"My apologies, madam," Rush managed in the end. "You are, of course, the daughter of the Countess?"
"I am her niece."
"Ah! Well, I can only repeat, you have my very deepest apologies. But, if I might ask...it is a little forward of me, I know...but why is the young lady of the house coming out to meet a travelling show-woman? Surely there are more appropriate people for the task?"
The voice of Eleanor Von Kaunitz was as diamond-like as ever: rock-hard and clear. "My aunt is a very wealthy woman, Miss Rushmore, but you will learn that she has a few...peculiarities. And these you will be required to accept without question if you are to be a guest in her home. My aunt values her privacy, and so keeps few servants. I attend to my own needs in this house and so must you."
"I said few. Truly, my aunt cares very little for society, and it is rare for her to invite strangers across the threshold. But she has a passionate interest in oddities, and she is eager to see your machine. You will find her willing to pay in proportion to her eagerness, as long as you are willing to endure an inconvenience or two."
Rush didn't answer immediately. I knew what she was thinking. This engagement was not what she had expected. An isolated manor, an eccentric employer, no servants in sight. Even I could tell that something seemed off. So what was Rush to do? Keep up her fawning, boot-lickerish act, or shriek a few choice English curses, hop back in the carriage and gallop off in the other direction?
At last, she said, "Under the circumstances, it will be necessary for me to charge an increased fee. You understand, I trust."
"A reasonable fee increase can be arranged. You won't ask for anything unreasonable. I trust."
Ten heartbeats, and then Rush asked the question that was on my mind. "Forgive my forwardness, madam. But while we were waiting- not that I disliked the waiting, mind you, it was rather enjoyable- but while we were waiting, I thought I heard a cry. May I ask if all is well inside the house?"
"No? No, all is not well?"
Though I had never seen Eleanor's face, I somehow knew what expression she was wearing at that moment. A pinched smile that looked more like a grimace.
"No," Eleanor repeated. "You may not ask."
* * *
"That arrogant, sarcastic Austrian bitch!"
Rush was in full flood- had been for some time- and she showed no sign of slowing down. Granted, she'd had some provocation. It turned out that the Countess employed a grand total of four servants: a cook, a housemaid, a stable boy too young to do any heavy lifting, and a footman so old and decrepit that his bones made crackling noises as he walked. That meant that there was no-one to help with the luggage. Von Hausen and the Gregory did the bulk of the backbreaking work, manhandling my box inside, and then the three oversized trunks. Rush had to carry some of the lighter items herself- hatboxes, portfolios, umbrellas and so on- and by the time we were settled in our rooms, she was so infuriated that she was ready to pop like a boil.
The rooms themselves were fairly decent. There was a bedchamber and a sitting room, both of them hung with drapes of dark blue and gold damask, and they had a sort of look of tired elegance about them. Heavy drapes covered all the windows. I would be safe here from air, space, and sunlight. But the dust beneath the chairs was a solid half-inch thick. That's what you get when you only keep one maid in a manor the size of a small palace. Towser churned up the dust as he padded around inspecting his new territory, and he sneezed every five seconds, as regularly as a clock.
Freed from my box at last, I sat next to Rush on the settee, trying to look appropriately outraged as she ranted. It didn't take much effort. Rush did all the talking; I just had to make the right facial expressions and stifle my yawns.
"Bitch," Rush said venomously, for the fiftieth time that night. "Self-satisfied daughter of a mule. So full of herself that she thinks her own shit doesn't stink. Well, she's unmarried, or I'm no judge. No surprise there. Who would want the harpy? In the end, her aunt the Countess will bribe some poor bastard into dragging her down the aisle, and he'll despise her and beat her well with a poker every night. And that's some comfort."
I made a vague noise which could have meant anything. I think Rush chose to take it as agreement, because she drew me towards her. Absent-mindedly, she scratched behind my ears, as she might have done to Towser. She did this sometimes and I couldn't really blame her. Rush had me and she had a large dog and if she mixed us up sometimes- well, she had a lot on her mind.
When I judged that she had calmed down enough for questions, I asked, "Do you have a theory about who was screaming?"
"Oh, who knows." Rush was stroking my head now, distractedly. "Some lunatic relative of the Countess. Or a pet baboon. Aristocrats are all half-insane anyway. We won't let it worry us, pet. We're only here for a week."
"Where are we going afterwards?"
"Kit, Kit. I'll tell you that when you need to know."
Rule number eleven was back in force, it seemed.
A large mirror hung on the opposite wall, and through the corner of my eye, I could see Rush and I reflected. We made an interesting tableau. Rush's stiff corset held her upright- a pinched and rigid figure- as she teased my short yellow hair into tufts between her fingers. I was leaning into her side, dressed, as always, in a boy's shirt and trousers and suspenders. Rush had allowed me to pick out my own clothes from the time I was twelve or so. My distaste for skirts amused her, but she humoured me. The boys' clothing was cheaper, and it wasn't as if I ever had to go out in public.
Rush worked her free hand into her pocket, drew out her heavy gold watch, and frowned at it. "Where in God's name is Caroline?" She didn't wait for an answer from me. "She was supposed to be back here before your bedtime. She knows damn well that you have a match tomorrow night. I won't have you staying up late the evening before a game."
"She's probably still dealing with the horses."
"More likely she's passed out in a cow stall, the stupid brute. If she's not back in the next ten minutes, then I'll have to deal with her according to martial law. I won't put up with this kind of behaviour."
I uncurled, and stretched my toes out towards the wall opposite. As moments in my life went, this one wasn't bad. The warmth and dimness of the room was soothing. Rush had allowed me a teaspoonful of jelly when she gave me supper. I had a game the next day. Von Hausen was in trouble. Best of all, Rush had tired herself out with all her ranting, so she wouldn't be needing me tonight.
It would have all been quite peaceful, except for one thing. Whatever Rush said, it wasn't an animal we had heard earlier. After my twelve years travelling with Rush, I knew what it sounded like when a woman screamed.
* * *
"Show it to me."
Rush's voice: very quiet, but with a kind of breathless eagerness. At first I wasn't sure whether I was dreaming or hearing it for real. Then I opened my eyes.
It was morning in the sitting room. A glowing line- sunlight- ran around the edges of the heavy drapes that covered the window. That was all right, as long as I didn't look at it directly.
Rush was bent over the settee where I had been sleeping. She was already dressed, her hair wet and braided neatly. There was a bright pink spot on each of her cheeks. "Show it to me," she said again.
Groggily, I raised myself to one elbow. "Right now?"
I glanced over at Von Hausen. She was still asleep, lying on the hearthrug in front of the empty fireplace. Towser lay beside her, his grizzled muzzle resting on her stomach.
Patience never was Rush's strong suit. I reached inside my nightshirt, groped around, found my bloodstone pendant, and pulled it out so that Rush could see it.
Not that there was anything new to see. It was the same pendant that Rush had given me more than a decade ago: a polished chunk of heliotrope the size of a large coin, in a silver setting, which hung from a silver chain. The stone itself was deep green, shot through with deep red veins. It looked like a bleeding emerald.
You're probably tired of reading about the rules by now. But I doubt you could possibly be as tired of reading about rules as I was tired of following them, and I had to cope. This was rule number seven: the bloodstone pendant stayed on unless Rush gave me permission to take it off. Which normally happened only when I was going to bathe. You're not supposed to get a bloodstone wet.
Rush's bony hand closed around the stone. Then, slowly and deliberately, she twisted it, taking up the slack of the chain, so that it drew taut around my neck. My pulse quickened, the big vein throbbing against the chain's tightness.
Rush smiled, and bent until her lips were almost touching my ear. "You feel that?"
I didn't answer- just kept my face blank. That was usually the safest thing to do, though it could provoke her.
"You missed me overnight," she whispered. "I can tell."
I bit my lip. When Rush said and did these things, it usually led to...Rush saying and doing other things, and I hadn't had a chance to brace myself for that. After all, I'd just woken up. I focused on getting air in and out of my lungs.
"You missed me," she said again. Still a whisper, but this time there was a note of command.
"I missed you," I repeated back to her.
One of her hands stayed where it was, gripping the chain tightly. The other slid downwards, and I stayed still. Didn't flinch. Didn't wince. That was the way to do it. That was how it had to be done.
"I'll have to leave you alone today," she said after several minutes, withdrawing her hand. "That Austrian bitch is going to expect me to put in an appearance at breakfast. And then I'll most likely spend a few hours dancing attendance on the Countess and answering all her stupid questions. Intolerable. But it can't be avoided. Caroline will watch you while I'm gone. Can you manage?"
She didn't wait for an answer. Instead, she twisted the pendant's chain just a tiniest bit tighter. Not enough to choke me. Just enough to make sure (as she would say) that I didn't get bored.
"It doesn't really matter how long I'm gone, does it?" she asked. "Nor even how far away I am. So long as you wear this, so long as you can feel it, you'll remember. Won't you? You'll remember."
Sometimes, when she was going through this tired old litany, I was tempted to ask, remember what? But that was pointless. We both knew what, and neither of us needed jewellery to make sure that it stayed uppermost in both our minds.
There were ten very long seconds, and then Rush let go of my chain. In the same motion, she rose from the settee and picked up her portfolio. It was the red one, full of sketches and diagrams of bizarre machines. A flying car with clockwork wings. A hot air balloon steered by propellers. A ship which could travel underwater. She hadn't given up hope of finding someone who would bankroll her while she tried to build one of those silly things. No doubt she would be heckling the Countess for donations over breakfast.
"When Caroline wakes up, tell her to start putting the Rajah together," she instructed me as she unlocked the door. "I'll be back at five o'clock or so to get you ready."
Her gaze lingered on the bloodstone pendant, which was resting outside my nightshirt, on top of my chest. Then her eyes flicked up to mine, and she gave me one of those thin and hungry smiles.
"Be a good girl while I'm gone," she said. "I'll know if you aren't."
She slipped outside and the key crunched in the lock. I'd heard an awful lot of keys crunch in an awful lot of locks over the course of my life. I could tell, without having to think about it, that this was a double-acting tumbler and that it wasn't kept very well oiled.
I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees, gripping hard until the trembling stopped. Rush very rarely needed me in the early morning, but it had been close, that time. Far too close. It felt like I'd just managed to avoid falling down a long flight of stairs in the dark.
Once I'd collected myself, more or less, I took a deep breath and flung the blanket off of me. The plan was to have a wash and get dressed before Von Hausen woke up, but as I was stooping to pick up my shirt and trousers from the floor, I froze. Von Hausen was still sprawled on the hearthrug, like an old hound, but her piggy eyes, in their sunken sockets, were just a slit open.
I bounced to my feet, holding my trousers up as a shield. "You sick freak- were you watching?"
Von Hausen snorted. "Don't flatter yourself. You may be Rush's special girl, but that doesn't mean the rest of us give a damn what you're doing."
She stretched, cricked her neck, and passed a work-hardened hand over Towser's head. The dog was still sleeping, but even so, he nuzzled into her. It was to him, not to me, that she spoke. "It doesn't mean much that she's Rush's favourite, you know. Doesn't mean much of anything. She's going to figure that out one day. Hope I'm around to see."
"Where else would you be? On safari in Deepest Africa? Rush wants you to assemble the Rajah."
I waited a whole three seconds. Then, when there was no sign of movement, I asked: "Well? Are you going to start?"
She sat up, but carefully, so she wouldn't wake the dog. "All these years," she mused to herself. "After all these years, Kit, you still haven't figured out that it's a bad idea to piss me off."
* * *
It was a very ordinary morning. Von Hausen and I traded swipes as we got dressed. Then she spent an hour or so rifling through our trunks and bags, checking to see whether Rush had left a bottle of liquor in there by mistake. Rush hadn't, so Von Hausen heaved a loud sigh and turned to making breakfast. She served up the porridge in a slow, resentful kind of way.
I don't see the point of porridge. Why would anyone want to eat something that's only one step removed from library paste? But it was what there was, so I worried a few spoonfuls down and pushed what was left underneath the table for Towser. Seconds later, Von Hausen put her own plate on the floor as well. She never was big on breakfast.
Then it was medicine time, and Von Hausen and I had our customary tussle over the cod liver oil. Have you ever had to take cod liver oil? The word "vile" doesn't come close to describing the flavour. The stuff tastes of everything in the world that you wouldn't want to put in your mouth, beginning with rotten halibut and going on from there. Plus, the spoon that they used to dose me was about the size of a soup plate. But Rush believed in cod liver oil almost as much as she believed in cold water baths and the glory of the British Empire- which is to say, A Lot. I didn't fight when Rush dosed me (no point) but I made up for it when it was Von Hausen holding the spoon.
On this particular day, Von Hausen had to chase me three times around the room with the spoon and the medicine bottle. Once she caught me, she trapped me between her legs and squeezed my nose shut until I had to open my mouth to breathe. Then she rammed the spoonful of vileness halfway down my throat and held it there until I swallowed convulsively. Before she let me go, she gave the side of my head a casual slap. Von Hausen's hand was so big that it felt like getting hit with the broad side of a spade.
As I said, a very ordinary morning.
While Von Hausen was squatting down to put the bottle of oil back in the trunk, her pendant swung out over the neckline of her dress. Von Hausen's pendant was an opal rather than a bloodstone: jet black, with veins of red dancing through. The silver chain, too, was almost black with tarnish, except for a shiny line where the metal rubbed against her skin.
I used to think it was unfair that Towser didn't have a pendant of his own. I had one, Von Hausen had one- why should he be left out? Towser never complained, but I sometimes thought he looked hurt.
Von Hausen straightened up abruptly, and her eyes turned back to slits when she saw me looking. "What the hell is so interesting, brat?"
Almost at the same instant, her face turned slate-grey and her shoulders hunched violently. She lurched towards the wastepaper basket and just managed to get her head over it before her breakfast made its escape.
It wasn't an inspiring spectacle, no it was not. It made me want to say: You want to know what's interesting, Von Hausen? What's interesting is that Rush still tolerates you.
"I'm going to read," I announced to no-one in particular, and climbed into the windowseat, my back to Towser and Von Hausen, the only other inhabitants of my little world.
* * *
I owned two books. One was Sketches by Boz by Mr. Charles Dickens, and the other was Analyse du jeu des Échecs, the chess manual written by the great immortal Philidor. I knew them both by heart, more or less, so reading was sort of a pointless exercise, but it was habit. Sometimes, when Rush locked me someplace dark, I would hold one of my books open in front of me while I mentally ran through the words.
I used to own a third book, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Rush had taken it away and torn it up to punish me for- something- I don't remember what. It might have been the time I took an extra piece of toast when her back was turned. She was always promising that she would get me another book to replace it, but so far she hadn't.
While I pored over Philidor's diagrams, Von Hausen unlocked the trunks that held the bits and pieces of the Rajah. Slowly, resentfully, she hauled the pieces out and began to put the automaton together. First there was the cabinet, a heavy wooden box with the chessboard set into its top surface. It was set on castors so that it could be wheeled around smoothly. Then there were the bits of clockwork that half-filled the cabinet's interior. Then there was the Rajah itself, the life-sized wooden figure dressed in a flowing red robe and a turban, which sat at the cabinet to play. Both hinged wooden arms rested on the cabinet's top.
Von Hausen was just finishing up when the door creaked and Rush slipped inside. She seemed sort of breathless as she snapped the lock home.
"We are leaving this backwater as soon as humanly possible," she announced through gritted teeth. "I thought the girl Eleanor was bad. The Countess sets a whole new standard for bitch."
I put down Analyse du jeu des Échecs. "What's the matter with her?"
"She's mad as the mist and snow, that's what's the matter with her, and on top of that she thinks she's holy Mary mother of God. And she has a voice that sounds like a donkey braying. Honestly! Maybe there's something in the water in Vienna. The men are all fat lechers and the women are all insane."
Rush collapsed onto the settee next to me, her hand automatically coming over to rest on my thigh. "I need to take you back to England sometime soon," she mused out loud. "Think of it, pet. Beef properly cooked, and beer with real hops, and people who can speak a civilized language. There's only one good reason to visit the Continent, and that's to buy French mustard. Nothing else in Europe is worth the trouble."
I made an agreeing sort of noise, automatically. Of course, I wasn't allowed to drink beer and I was rarely allowed to eat beef and I've never liked mustard and French is my mother tongue. And going back to England would mean going back to Whitebrook, and, given a choice between going back to Whitebrook and inserting spiky objects into my every orifice, I wouldn't have hesitated to choose the latter. But there was no point in saying any of that. Of course.
"The Rajah's ready," Rush noted. "Good. The match will take place after dinner- you've a couple of hours. Kit can spend them practising. And Caroline..."
With narrowed eyes, Rush measured Von Hausen, who stood dully at attention in her black maid's dress. It was streaked, now, with the dust of the disused room.
"Will you please make yourself useful, Caroline?" Rush snapped, irritated. "You are living on my bounty, after all. Do you think you're cheap to maintain? Work with Kit. Put her through her paces. Can you manage that, do you think, or do we need to find another use for you? Perhaps we could hollow you out and use you as a linen chest. What do you think?"
There was a time when Von Hausen would have risen to this kind of taunt, but that was long over. Now she just stood, patient as an ox, until Rush was done talking, then she said: "You promised I could have some today."
"Yes. That you remember. I ask you whether you've done the laundry, and you stand around gaping."
Rush drew a little flask from her pocket. Only half-full. It wouldn't be nearly enough for Von Hausen, but even so, the big woman's eyes turned to moist, pleading wells. Rush snorted a laugh.
"Take it then," she said, and slapped the flask into Von Hausen's outstretched, trembling hand. "Take it and damn you to the pit. One of these days, I swear, I'll leave you by the side of the road. And I'll pick up a pig to take your place. It'll be cleaner, do more work in the course of the day, and be less likely to make messes on the carpet. Yes, that's right, start swilling it down straight away. You're a disgrace, Caroline."
The first fumbling gulp of liquor calmed Von Hausen, as it always did. Her eyes closed in something close to ecstasy when it hit her stomach. I could smell the faint fruitiness of the drink: schnapps. Once upon a time, schnapps was Von Hausen's favourite, but she had passed beyond such niceties. Now she would drink anything, from champagne to rubbing alcohol, and lick the glass clean when she was done. She'd even drink furniture varnish, strained through a stocking so it became a muddy potion.
"Pathetic," Rush announced, patting my knee. "Well, pet. You'd better get to your practising. I have to go and make conversation with the cream of the Austrian nobility."
"How many people are going to attend the performance tonight?"
Rush's face darkened, and I realized, too late, that I had asked the wrong question.
"No-one is going to attend the performance tonight," she said, with terrible bitterness. "The Countess will be there, with her bitch of a niece. That's it. When did we last play to an audience of two? It's exploitation, that's what it is. It's highway robbery. If the Countess wasn't paying so well, I would march straight out of here, and I would steal all the silver spoons I could find on my way to the door. That's what I would do."
Rush gave me a final pat, and stood up again. "Kit, get to your practising. I'll be back for you in two hours. God, I hate Vienna."
* * *
You might wonder what the problem was with playing to a tiny audience, so long as the Countess was willing to pay Rush's price. The problem was this: We relied on word of mouth to spread the news about the Rajah and secure our next booking. A small audience meant no advertising, and that meant we could be marooned for weeks while Rush wrote frantic letters to every rich man in a hundred miles, trying to arrange another show. We only made money if we kept moving. When we didn't have a gig, we bled cash on hotel bills.
Rush had to worry about the bottom line. Someone had to, since we lived on the road and our finances were often precarious. The only thing we had that was close to a home base was Whitebrook, the cottage in Dover which Rush rented for two months each winter. Whitebrook was much worse than the road. I tried not to think about it too often.
Winters at Whitebrook went in cycles. For weeks at a time, Rush would be at her desk for sixteen hours a day, feverishly scratching out diagrams and scribbling calculations. Her hands became blotched with ink up past the wrists and she barely ate anything. She swore a lot and kicked things and broke perfectly good plates. I had to tiptoe around her because if I made too much noise, she'd banish me to the garret. Nothing to do up there but listen to the wind screaming down the cliffs outside like a lost and angry soul, and the crash of the waves howling back.
Rush didn't visit me up in the garret. Not when she was in a fit of creation. The only person I saw was Von Hausen, and I only saw her twice a day, when she unlocked the trapdoor to deliver my meals. The ladder she had to climb was very rickety, and she always wobbled as she slid my tray across the floor and pulled the empty one back.
That would last a while. Then, one day, without warning, Rush's concentration would break. She would rip up an entire sheaf of her work and throw the scraps of paper out the window and finally put on a clean dress. Then she'd get me down from the garret, and- well, then she'd be sociable for a few weeks. I didn't like that either.
It did occur to me that if we ran out of money, we wouldn't be able to afford Whitebrook. It had happened once before, when I was nineteen. We'd spent a thin, hungry season, scraping by with small shows in churches and taverns. At one point, things were so tight that Von Hausen had to get a job as a tavern maid- which worked out just splendidly, as you can imagine.
It was cold and uncomfortable and miserable.
It was still much, much better than Whitebrook.
So there was that.
* * *
Rush had said, practice.
Practice playing chess. Practice working the Rajah. She might as well have said, Practice digesting food, or Practice being attracted to the earth's surface by gravity, or Practice that thing you do where you have mass and occupy a point in space.
But one didn't argue with Rush (rule two, see above) and it wasn't as if we had a better way to spend our time. So Von Hausen, slow and resentful as ever, unlatched the lid of the Rajah's cabinet.
The cabinet lid was firmly fixed. If you didn't know the trick to it, you could wrench on it all the livelong day and find it solid as a stone slab. But if you did know the trick, if you knew exactly where to feel to find the secret catch, then eight latches all pulled back at once with a neat snick and the top came loose. Then you could lift it up, chess board and all, revealing the cabinet's interior, a mess of wires and levers and wheels.
This was the living heart of the Rajah, the secret to the illusion. Yet the average man would never have understood what it all meant, not even if he stared at the machinery until he wept blood.
You may have heard that all magic is smoke and mirrors. And up to a point, that's true. But there's a far more potent ingredient at work, which is this: Human brains take the path of least resistance. If a human being walks into a room, and sees something that looks like a machine playing chess, then he'll probably decide that it is a machine playing chess, simply because it would require too much effort to decide anything else. Even if he's suspicious, he won't do any more than ask a half-hearted question or two, and almost any old answer will satisfy him as long as you give it without blinking. Human beings aren't particularly interested in looking beneath the surface. There are exceptions, of course, but they're rare as unicorns.
And that's why, for decades on end, the good people of Europe flocked into audience halls to see the chess machines play. They had their doubts and misgivings. I'm sure they knew, deep down, that neither the Turk nor the Rajah was a real automaton. But they didn't want to bother coming up with an alternative explanation. It would have been too tedious.
Twelve years, I thought tiredly, the cod liver oil still curdling in my stomach, as Von Hausen gripped me under the arms and lifted me inside the cabinet. Twelve years of this, and how much longer, I wonder.
I fitted myself into the tight confines of the box. There was more room in there than you would think, because the gears and machinery folded back to give extra space. And, of course, I'm small to begin with, and was smaller than I should have been, thanks to Rush's dietary regime. But even so, it wasn't comfortable. As I tried to avoid spiking myself on something sharp, Von Hausen lit a candle and all but threw it at me. I just got hold of the slippery wax before it crashed to the bottom of the box. Then, unceremoniously, she slammed down the cabinet's lid, sealing me inside.
* * *
Say what you like about Rush: She knew how to strip a problem down to its essentials. That was what she did on that night in 1819, at No. 4, Spring Gardens, when she first saw the Turk play. While the others in the audience were lost in fascination, Rush was dissecting the fakery involved.
"It was all childishly simple," she explained to me once. "Just a basic little illusion. You see it in a thousand magic tricks. A box appears to be full when it's really half-empty."
Doubled up inside the cabinet, I blew hair from my face and oriented myself. The candle went on a small shelf we called the light-trap. There was a screen that could be pulled in front of it to hide the flame. Dummy bits of machinery and clockwork gears folded back and out of the way on hinges to give me room to move. Not a lot, but enough that my fists weren't knocking against my face.
Von Hausen's voice called out: "Thirty seconds."
She sounded vastly bored, and I wasn't exactly thrilled myself. After twelve years spent operating the Rajah, I could work the thing dead drunk. (Or I could have, if I was allowed to get dead drunk, which I wasn't. I was permitted a half-glass of sherry with dinner now and then, but that was about it.)
But, rule two. One did not argue with Rush. Von Hausen and I tiredly went through the routine.
I scooted onto a sliding seat which let me move smoothly from one end of the box to the other. Von Hausen, playing the role of the showman, opened the two doors in the cabinet's front, one at a time. This was the manoeuvre meant to prove to the audience that there was no living person inside the box.
Of course, it didn't prove anything of the kind. As each cabinet door was opened, I simply slid across the box until the other door hid me. Folding panels concealed the parts of my body which would otherwise have been on display.
When both doors were shut, I pulled back the screen that hid the candle, letting the little flame light up the cabinet. Then I took a small chessboard from a hidden pouch and set it up on the floor in front of me. The Rajah was ready to play.
My cramped pose made my suspenders cut into my shoulders, so I pulled them down and untucked my shirt from my trousers as well. That was another reason that Rush didn't mind my dressing in boy's clothes. It would have been impossible to fit a puffy feminine dress inside the cabinet. Let alone the petticoats.
Von Hausen's meaty fist rapped on the top of the cabinet. Her voice: "Ready, brat?"
I didn't bother to answer, because what was the point, and heard a chair scrape along the ground as she drew it up to the cabinet.
Von Hausen would make her move first, because the Rajah always played black. I waited, staring up at the underside of the cabinet's lid. There were sixty-four delicate coils of wire screwed there, one for each square of the chessboard that sat atop the cabinet. Each coil of wire had a small but powerful magnet attached to the end, and each chessman on the cabinet's top had a matching magnet implanted in its base.
As I watched, one coiled wire stirred, its magnet bouncing. After an instant, another wire moved two spaces away. That let me know which piece Von Hausen had moved.
White: pawn to king four, I registered automatically. I made the same move on my own secondary chessboard, and then prepared to counterattack.
Moving the Rajah's black chessmen was simple. I had a pointer, attached to a series of levers which controlled the Rajah's arm. When I positioned the pointer above a square on the small chessboard in front of me, the Rajah's arm hovered over the corresponding square on the cabinet's top. I made the Rajah's fingers open and close by twisting a dial.
After so many years, using the Rajah's arm to pick up a chess piece was as simple as using a fork to spear a piece of chicken. I made my move, and we were away.
It was a very short game. I destroyed Von Hausen in six minutes. That irked me, because it was plain that she wasn't trying. Von Hausen was a bitch of the worst kind, but she was also the most underrated chess player in Europe.
Is that surprising? Maybe it is, the way I've described Von Hausen to you so far, but it's true, as well. For all that she was so dour and plodding and gloomy in normal life, Von Hausen was a thrilling chess player, with a brash, provocative style. She was daring, taunting, sometimes a little reckless, often making bold sacrifices in order to gain a tactical advantage. I had been playing against her for twelve years, and though she almost never beat me anymore, she always, always kept me interested.
But that was only when she had just the right amount of liquor in her. Too sober, and she couldn't concentrate. Too drunk, and I might as well have been playing against a turnip of less than average intelligence.
On this particular afternoon, Von Hausen hadn't drunk enough. She played listlessly and I crushed her without paying any real attention.
"I'm done," she announced, in her gravelly voice, after the Rajah had flicked her king from the board.
Typical, just typical. "I'm supposed to be practising," I called to her, through the planks of the box.
"You'll practise by yourself, then," said Von Hausen. "I'm done."
"Fine," I snapped, tight with frustration. "Let me out."
There was a long pause then, and I knew that a cruel, almost piggy smile was spreading across her face.
I breathed, carefully. She had me. I couldn't open the box from the inside- the lid and doors were locked. I could beat my fists and feet against the sides, but I'd only hurt myself. Or, worse, hurt some crucial part of the Rajah. I couldn't really imagine what Rush would do if I damaged the Rajah right before a show, and I didn't want to imagine it, either.
I contented myself with asking, "How long until Rush comes back? How long before the show?"
"An hour and a half," she said. Her heavy footsteps thudded across the room, away from me. "Enjoy yourself."
I spent five minutes imagining Von Hausen running around with her head on fire. This was enjoyable but got to be a bit repetitive, so instead I just listened, trying to figure out where she was in the room. It seemed very quiet out there, but I knew she hadn't gone.
Because that was rule number twelve: Someone always had to be watching me. And of all the rules, Rush used to insist, that one was by far the most important.
You don't understand what the world does to women like you, she had told me more than once. You'll figure it out one day, Kit…you'll figure out why I'm going to such lengths to keep you safe. A pause. To keep you.
* * *
Here is something I remember.
On Christmas Day, when I was eighteen, we were wintering at Whitebrook, as usual. Rush went into town for a pick-me-up at a public house. Von Hausen and I were left back at the cottage, glaring at each other by the light of the fire. We'd already eaten our presents. (An orange for Von Hausen, and two oranges for me.)
"I need to practise," I said at last, when we'd gotten tired of slinging insults at each other. "Rush said that I had to practise."
Von Hausen went over to the sideboard, where the liquor bottles stood like glinting tombstones, and found the schnapps. This was before Rush began to lock the alcohol away. "And why should I help you, brat?"
"Because I'll tell Rush you if you don't and she'll make you sleep in the stables."
She shrugged, splashing liquor into a glass. "It'll be warmer in there, anyway."
"I'll take your word for it, seeing as you slept there last night. You still stink, by the way."
Von Hausen turned to me. Her eyes were distant, the way they sometimes became when she was about to start telling one of her gory German folktales.
"You know," she said, "some people say that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals in a stable all fall to their knees." She knocked back her drink and burped reflectively. "It isn't true, in case you were wondering. Set up a board."
I set up two: the wooden board and the ivory. While I did that, Von Hausen went back to the bottle. Looking up, I saw the schnapps glug-glug into the glass, filling it and then slopping over the rim. I scowled. "If you want me to checkmate you in six moves, all you have to do is keep drinking."
"If you want a broken jaw, all you need to do is keep talking." She dropped heavily into her chair and took a long, reflective gulp.
I watched her through narrowed eyes, seething.
Von Hausen drained the entire glass before she turned her attention to the chessboards. "What sort of handicap are you taking?"
"I'll give you rook odds. And first move."
I would be playing black, as always, so Von Hausen plucked a black rook from each of the chessboards, tossing both of them aside. "Let's get the magic started, then. I wouldn't want to fall asleep and miss all the thrills."
"You know, apart from chess, the most exciting thing that happens in your life is when you find a pimple on your backside that's slightly larger than usual. So don't get bitchy with me." I plumped back onto the settee, closed my eyes, and draped a handkerchief over my face. "Go ahead, I'm ready."
"You're ready. I rejoice." Once again, I heard liquid glug into a glass, and then there was a long, long gulp. "All right. Ivory board- pawn to queen four. Wooden board- pawn to king four."
I envisioned the pieces moving, even as I heard Von Hausen sliding them into place. "Ivory board, knight to king's bishop six. Wooden board, pawn to queen's bishop six. And so help me, Von Hausen, if you pass out in the middle of the game, I am shaving your head."
"If you try that then I will beat the stuffing out of you, and unlike you, I'm not exaggerating."
"Wanker. Ivory board, pawn to queen's bishop three."
We fell automatically into the rhythm of the game, Von Hausen moving the pieces for both of us. Playing chess blindfold isn't as hard as you might believe. It's a bit gimmicky, to my way of thinking. You could compare it to playing a violin while standing on one foot. It complicates things a bit, but it doesn't say anything real about how good you are. It was something that Rush liked to see me do, though, and so I had to keep in practice.
One time, in London, the great immortal Philidor blindfolded himself and played three different matches against three different opponents all at once. The crowds went berserk, which probably embarrassed him. He would have known, just as I did, that such flourishes were quite beside the point.
I could handle three or four or five blindfold matches at once (it's really not that much harder than two) but I couldn't count on Von Hausen to stay focused on all of them until we were finished.
Even though we were limiting ourselves to two games, it didn't take long for Von Hausen to begin to drift. The pauses between her moves stretched and stretched. Ten minutes in, she was silent for so long that I groped around until I found a pillow and hurled it towards what I hoped was her head.
I heard her catch it, heard her grunt. "You get one warning. This is not a night to be messing with me. I will snap your damn neck. I think even Christ Almighty would understand."
"Just move," I snapped, lying back down. "You do remember how to do that, don't you? Or do I need to explain the rules again?"
"Don't strain yourself. Wooden board, king's rook to queen's bishop five."
For an instant, that just floored me. "What?"
"You heard me."
Beneath the blindfold, I rolled my eyes. "Knight to king six takes queen. You idiot. What in hell were you thinking?"
Another long slurp from the schnapps glass. "Big talk for a little girl."
"Von Hausen, you're not even trying!"
"So make your damn move. You're so confident, let's see you bring it home. I might surprise you."
I doubted that, but I envisioned the wooden chessboard, just in case, and scanned it carefully. That only confirmed what I already knew. "You were trying to be a smartass and it backfired. It's checkmate in three moves. See for yourself."
There was the scraping sound as Von Hausen moved the pieces, and then silence for a while longer. Though I couldn't see her, I could picture her effortlessly: her dour, drooping face as she stared at the board. "Huh," she admitted. "Fine. My mistake."
I tore off the blindfold so that I could glare at her more convincingly. I was expecting her to be properly stewed, drunk enough to be sweating schnapps from every pore. But, truth be told, she didn't look that far gone. Her eyes hadn't glassed over yet.
"You stupid boozer," I snapped. "You're pathetic."
"So?" she said peaceably, refilling her glass. "You're ugly."
"I mean it! You're a damn good player when you want to be- but if you can't be arsed, then don't waste my time. Go hide in the stables and drink until you puke and I'll play chess with Towser instead. He smells better."
Von Hausen swirled the glass before the candlelight. Sometime during the game she had switched from schnapps to wine, and it shone a fine clear ruby. "Guess we couldn't have that," she said. "Me, I mean, wasting your precious precious time."
"Give it a rest," I muttered. I like fighting in theory. In practice, it exhausts me.
"No, we couldn't have that. After all, you're Rush's special girl. Aren't you? "
There was an edge in her tone that made me uneasy. Slowly- for some reason, I didn't want to make sudden movements- I rose from the couch. "I'm going to go to bed, Von Hausen. If there's anything left in your skull other than schnapps, you'll do the same."
"Why go to sleep?" She tilted way back in her chair, until the legs shuddered with strain. "Rush is going to be back before long."
"Rush? Back here? How thrilling and unexpected. Get out of my way."
She let the chair fall forward, blocking the path to the ladder that led to the garret. "This is Christmas. It's all about celebration. Rush is going to want her special girl around when she gets home. She's going to want to have a celebration all her own."
"Move. I'm tired."
"You will be, by the time she's through with you. You won't be able to walk for a week."
The words hit me with a literal wallop, as though she had socked me in the jaw. Rule number eight was that we weren't allowed to mention...that. Taken to its logical extreme, this would have meant that we weren't allowed to mention rule number eight, which could have become confusing, but it didn't really matter. Out of all of the rules, this was the only one that both Von Hausen and I were unhesitatingly ready to follow. There was never any love lost between the two of us, I think I've made that clear, and yet we had a kind of silent understanding that both our lives would be easier if certain things weren't discussed.
And here she'd gone and done it. On Christmas, no less.
"Aw, hell," Von Hausen went on, seeing my face. "Did I embarrass you? Come on, Kit. I hear the two of you every time you go at it. You know how funny you sound when you whimper? And don't give me the whipped puppy look. We both know that you love it."
Rush always called Von Hausen a brute, and in that moment she looked like one. There was a sort of stupid animal triumph there, a savageness, and it made me want to hit her again and again and again until she fell apart in bleeding fragments. Forgetting, for the moment, that she could have thrashed me one-handed, and without changing her expression.
But I didn't have time, because the door rattled, and the air in the cottage chilled as the wind swirled inside, and Rush came in with it. I remember there were snowflakes on her lips that melted almost at once when she came inside, making her smile wide and red and wet.
Not my favourite memory, that.
* * *
After Von Hausen left me locked inside the Rajah, I was stuck there for ninety minutes, getting steadily more cramped and itchy. I was breathing candle-soot for all that time, and my mouth tasted like I had been sucking on a lump of coal. In my more lucid intervals, I fantasized about everything I would do to Von Hausen to make her regret this. I couldn't just hit her with a stick, of course, but I had my ways. I thought I might throw her only pair of shoes into the fire, and then tell Rush she'd sold them for a glass of beer. Punishment would be swift and terrible. I liked that thought.
It seemed a hundred years before I heard the door creak open, and Rush's pointed boots clumping on the rug. Then, finally, at last, the lid above me lifted.
Rush leaned on the lip of the cabinet and surveyed me. "Is
everything all right?"
"Everything is normal," I told her, answering her question and sidestepping it at the same time. "Normal" was right. Von Hausen was a bitch and I was in a box. There was nothing unusual in that. But it would have been stretching the truth out of shape to say that I was all right.
Rush didn't delve any deeper. Rush never did. "Fine," she said, lighting a fresh candle and passing it to me. "Our audience- and I use the term loosely- is waiting. The Countess is complaining about the delay and nursing a fifth glass of wine. With luck, she'll still be upright and conscious when we reach the parlour, but I can make no guarantees. You'll have to be careful with her, Kit. Make the game last as long as possible."
I lifted one eyebrow, surprised. "Do you want me to let her think she's winning for a while?"
"No. Absolutely not. I am not going to grant that harpy a moment's satisfaction that it's in my power to keep from her. But I want to get paid and so she needs to stay amused. Exercise some restraint. Don't destroy her in the first ten seconds. We'll save that for Friday evening, right before we escape this pit. Caroline, don't wait up. I've plenty for you to do tomorrow. There's dirty laundry, and our Gregory has buggered off back to the tavern, so you'll have to see to the horses as well. Mind your head, Kit."
I ducked. The lid crashed back into place and the latches snapped home. I was left in the dark, sweat pooling under my shirt collar, and my mouth foul-tasting from the candle soot. Then the box began to roll forward, out of the sitting room, and towards the parlour where the Countess waited.
Everything's normal, I told Rush, and at the time, I didn't think that was a lie. I was, of course, wrong. There were signs I could have caught, signs that would have let me know that things were about to change, if I'd only had the wit to see them. (A tarnished chain, a newspaper clipping, a scream from the attic.) But I missed the signs and I make no apologies. I spent half my time in a box, and that kind of lifestyle has a way of blunting one's sense of observation.
Here's what I know now that I didn't know then: Long before we ever arrived at the manor, things had already started on their downward, fatalistic plunge. By the time the Rajah rolled over the threshold into the Countess's parlour, it was all pretty much settled how everything was going to turn out.
Even though there were three days to go before the murder.
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