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. Racist views are expressed by a Very Bad Person. There is also murder, manipulation, and a whole lotta chess.
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Part Seven: The Eighth Square
I was ravenous the next morning. Wolfed my breakfast in fifteen seconds flat. Rush gave me a forgiving smile over the rim of her cup, and slipped a second piece of toast onto my plate. “No butter,” she cautioned.
I dunked it in my tea instead. Rush helped herself to another mutton chop and broke open a soft-boiled egg.
“One more game,” she reminded me. “Then England, and Whitebrook, and a good long rest. No-one to bother us, and no-one to interrupt. I'll get back to work on the counting machine, and you can read Sketches by Boz until you're cross-eyed. I'll tell you what, I'll buy you any books you want. A pile too big for you to lift with both hands. Would you like that?”
“Of course,” I said automatically, picking my toast into fragments to distract myself from the sick heaviness in my stomach.
* * *
Rush had to spend the day making nice with the Countess, which meant that I had to spend the day locked in our rooms, making as little noise as I possibly could. The hours ground by more slowly without Von Hausen. Not that she was ever a stunning conversationalist, but she had always been there.
I slept for a while, but my dreams were sticky and grey and didn't go anywhere. After several sweaty hours, I gave up. Instead, I lay on the hearth rug with Towser and tried to imagine the future. Rush and I would be at Whitebrook. Not for a month, or two months, but for a year or more. Which meant that my entire world would be the shuttered living room, the garret where Rush usually kept me, and, occasionally, Rush's bedchamber. No chess to keep my brain awake, no Von Hausen to distract me, no Rajah to occupy me, no travel to vary the scene, just familiar buff-coloured walls and the ever-present, all-consuming fact of…Rush.
Who would do the work around the place with Von Hausen gone? Me, perhaps, but I couldn't very well clean out the stables or weed the garden. Not without collapsing in the muck, and that would be counter-productive, to say the least.
Maybe we'd pick up a Gregory on the way to Dover. Or maybe Rush would sell the horses and let the garden go to seed. Maybe she would want to concentrate on indoor amusements.
God. I stroked Towser slowly, not even feeling the fur under my fingers. If I had to spend a year that way, there would be nothing left of me by the time it was over.
There was no point in thinking about it. I stood up, brushed dog hair from my shirt, and set up a chessboard.
A few times, as I worked, I looked up at the locked door. A pointless reflex. Eleanor wasn't coming. So far as she knew, I was halfway to the sanatorium. She wouldn't question that. She had no reason to.
You may have heard that all illusions are 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 girl who lives with her cousin, then she'll probably decide that it is a girl who lives with her cousin, simply because it would require too much effort to decide anything else. Even if she's suspicious, she won't do any more than ask a half-hearted question or two, and almost any old answer will satisfy her as long as you give it without blinking. Human beings just aren't particularly interested in looking beneath the surface. There are exceptions, of course, but they're rare as unicorns.
I'd thought for a while that Eleanor might be a unicorn, but it seemed not.
Eventually, I crawled under the bed, pulled the chessboard underneath with me, and played a few games by touch. That at least kept my eyes away from the door, and the darkness was calming. But Towser soon crept under there with me and went to work washing my ears with a long slobbery tongue. This did nothing to improve my concentration. Presently, I gave up on the chess, put an arm around Towser's neck, nerved myself, and told him the truth about Von Hausen.
He took it pretty well, all things considered.
* * *
It was fully dark in the blue room by the time Rush got back. Rule ten: I wasn't allowed to light a lamp myself.
“Quick, quick, quick,” she said, whipping the lid from the Rajah's cabinet. “No time for your supper. We're on in ten minutes. You should have gotten the Rajah ready. Never mind. Christ Jesus, I should have picked up a Gregory in Vienna yesterday.”
She should have refrained from killing Von Hausen, was what she should have done, but I didn't think that she would react well if I mentioned that. I let her boost me over the side of the cabinet, and folded myself into its cramped confines.
Rush lit a candle and almost threw it in to me. Then the lid crashed down and the bolts scraped as she locked each panel in place. Her knuckles rapped on the wood of cabinet: edgy, impatient. “Check the machinery. Quickly.”
I tested each dial and lever in turn. “Fine,” I reported.
“Good. No more talking, now. The Countess is sending her footman to wheel the Rajah to the parlour. Then it's just business as usual.”
No talking, she had said, but she went on talking herself. “This is your last chance to defeat that woman, Kit. Don't disappoint me. I want you to crush her into the carpet. Afterwards, just be still and be quiet. I'm not sure where she's going to put the Rajah for the night, but wherever it is, I'll find you. All you have to do is wait. Can you do that for me, Kit?”
I didn't answer. The waiting was fine; the waiting wasn't a problem. The problem was what would happen after the waiting was over.
There was silence, then, for some minutes. A chair creaked- Rush was sitting down. At last, I felt tiny vibrations in the wood underneath me. That would be the footman- his steps in the hall.
Skirts whisked near the cabinet as Rush leaned close. “This is the last time,” she whispered huskily. “Just this night, and then I'll be able to take you back to Whitebrook. Remember that.”
There was really no chance that I would forget.
* * *
It took a long, long time for the old footman to wheel the Rajah to its destination. He moved at a slow, shuffling pace, with frequent pauses for breath. It dragged on so long, I began to worry that the candle would burn down before we reached the parlour. During one of the halts, I opened the light-trap to make sure that the flame hadn't guttered out.
That was when I saw it: a piece of paper, folded small and pinned tight against the planking so the flame wouldn't set it alight.
There was writing on it. I unfolded the paper, spreading it over my knee, and tilted the candle so it illuminated the blobby, almost illegible scrawl:
If you're reading this then things didn't go as planned. Don't blame yourself. It was my risk to take.
There's something you need to know, if you don't already. Rush will take another girl sooner or later. She prizes you more than anything else she owns, but there was a time when she prized me that way. Long ago.
I won't tell you to run- at least not now. I don't think that you would get any distance on your own. Rush made sure of that. But I believe that when Rush finds someone new, you'll find a way to get both of you out, rather than help Rush turn another child into a machine. You see I think more of you than Rush does.
Forgive me if I'm not making sense. I've had no liquor for the past day and it feels like worms are burrowing through me. Forgive me for everything.
It would be a lie to say that I didn't hate you. Part of me always did. But that was the worst part of me. There's better stuff in me still, even now. If I have the right to ask you for anything, then I ask you to believe that.
Post Scriptum: If and when you need to choose a destination, aim for Paris. You have relatives there. Your father was a fool, but not a demon. CvH.
Here was final proof that Caroline Von Hausen was no fool herself. She had managed to hide her last letter to me in a place where only I would look.
My eyes stung. Candle smoke, I thought, until I realized that my face was wet. Unbelieving, I touched my cheek. There were tears there. I was crying. Very strange. I hadn't done that since I was eleven. I sort of thought that the machinery had stopped working. The teardrops made my eyes burn- had tears always stung that way?
There seemed to be more writing on the back of the letter. I flipped the page and found a scribbled outline of a chess board, with the black pieces sketched in charcoal and the white in chalk. Underneath, in Von Hausen's sprawling script, was written, Black to play, and win in six moves.
I recognized the game. It was one that Von Hausen and I had played four months earlier, on one of those rare nights when she was neither too drunk nor too sober to think. She'd been at her best that night, attacking me from every side, so that I'd been forced to do some very fast thinking indeed.
And I knew immediately what Von Hausen was trying to tell me, the message that she had wanted to leave behind. The turning point of that game was when Black sacrificed a knight to save a pawn.
Yes, sacrifice had always been Von Hausen's style. It was one of the things I'd learned from her, as a player. If you didn't have the nerve to sacrifice some of your men en route to the goal, you were forced to stay forever on the defensive, and the game dragged on for what seemed like an eternity.
Eternity. I saw a thousand faces in the next few seconds- everything that Von Hausen had been over the course of her short poisoned life. There was the solemn-eyed child with yellow hair, who had so entranced Rush with her mastery of mental arithmetic. There was the girl of fourteen, confused and coddled and abused and desperate, tethered to Rush by a blood opal on a chain. There was the young woman locked inside the Rajah for the first time. There she was again, a young woman still, numbing herself with liquor so cheap it was literal poison. And finally, there was the woman grown- her body gone soft, her mind unbalanced- chasing me down, dragging me back to Rush, as her orange-veined eyes flamed in their sockets.
The bottle had been Von Hausen's escape in more ways than one. Deliberately or not, she had transformed herself into something that Rush didn't want. And then, when Rush began to use her as a sort of workhorse or manservant, she found the only sort of freedom left to her. She stopped caring.
Rush had admitted it herself: there wasn't much she could do after Von Hausen decided to let herself decompose. Except- apparently- murder her. Why not? She was replaceable.
Was I replaceable? Rush said that I wasn't, but how could that be? I was a pawn, after all, and all pawns are pretty much identical. The only difference between them is that some are closer to the end of their journey than others.
I pressed my fingertips to my eyes and forced myself to remember that blood-red garnet, waiting in its box. Yes. The truth I had been avoiding was seared into my brain now, in letters of flame five inches high. Von Hausen was right. Rush was going to take another girl someday. When the opportunity arose, she wouldn't be able to stop herself. The only questions were, when would it happen and what would happen to me afterwards?
Surely I would be expected to make myself useful, since I would be living on Rush's bounty. And the image hit me like a lightning blast: a ten-year-old child, crouched, screaming, and me somewhere above her, wielding a belt.
No no no no no no no. I scrubbed at my eyes until the picture went away. No. No. Not that. Never that. I wouldn't. I wouldn't.
But if I wouldn't...if I couldn't...what then? Would Rush get rid of me? Sell me to someone who would slash my tendons and chain me to a bed? Abandon me in one of those workhouses or prisons or factories where people who ran from their good masters were turned into ghosts?
Maybe Rush would turn me into a ghost all on her own. Maybe she would just break out the old spring-loaded knife and end it.
Or maybe she would lead me outside, and leave me under the black terror of the sky until I broke into pieces and swore a million times that I would do whatever she wanted. It might not even take long for her to bring me to that state. Hadn't I always done what Rush told me to do?
With a jerk, the Rajah started to move again. The candle toppled; I clutched wildly for it and just managed to catch it before the flame wobbled out. My hands were shaking mightily- the way that Von Hausen's hands used to shake when she lifted a bottle to her lips for the first time in a day.
The near disaster brought me to my senses. I couldn't sit and fret about all the things that Rush might or might not do. Rush, as always, would do what she wanted. I had to focus on getting through tonight, and the night after that, and the night after that, and then the winter at Whitebrook, and the spring to follow. I couldn't let myself be haunted by that as-yet-unnamed girl, the one who would eventually wear the garnet, or I would go mad before the last of the leaves fell.
The box rolled over that familiar dip in the floor, where the plank had sunk. We had almost reached the parlour. We were minutes away from the Rajah's final game. I pressed my palms flat against the wood, trying to steady myself, to focus, even as I felt my lungs constrict.
When Rush finds someone new, Von Hausen had written, you will find a way to get both of you out. I didn't believe that, but maybe, for the time being, I could pretend that it was true. Everyone else in the human race kept their lives bearable by believing in illusions. Why should I be the only one left out?
* * *
“The light in here is dreadful, ” I heard Rush complain, as the Rajah wheeled to a halt. “We might as well be playing in a cave.”
“Complaints, complaints,” the Countess said. “I like it dim. Too much light hurts my eyes. Fetch my chair, Eleanor. I want to get on with this.”
The game began without fanfare. Once again, Rush didn't bother with the routine of opening the doors in the Rajah's cabinet to expose the clockwork. The Countess simply shoved a pawn across the board, and we were away.
After the first few moves, I felt a sweet-sad thrill. The Countess was, once again, positioning her troops with the skill and dash of a first-rank master. I knew what that meant. Eleanor was back on the job, fan at the ready. It was Eleanor who was playing this game.
There was conversation, outside the box. The Countess spoke in her donkey's bray of a voice, and Rush responded in a darker, lower tone. But I blocked my ears to all of that. I didn't care what they were saying. This match was between me and Eleanor. No-one else mattered, and no-one else existed. Every time I moved the Rajah's hand, I imagined that it was my own fingers closing on the chessman. Every time the Countess responded, I could see Eleanor's lips quirk into a wicked smile. For minutes at a time, I could almost make myself believe that the two of us were sitting face to face, with no masks or barriers between us.
Eleanor was, of course, playing superbly, and that spurred me to new heights. I unleashed every trick I'd learned or invented, and others that I made up on the spot. She pushed back, slashing into my defence, opening holes that I had to scramble to defend. At one point she almost had me cornered, but I sacrificed my queen, à la Von Hausen, to free my knight for a counterattack. It scythed through her line, wreaking havoc. The Countess said nothing, but I could hear Eleanor, quite distinctly, as she chuckled beneath her breath. That's when I knew that she was enjoying the game as much as I was.
It was a dance rather than a battle, a sort of duet, and I lost myself in it. Moving into endgame, we were neck and neck, with two pawns and a bishop apiece as well as our kings. I bent over my board, thinking feverishly. It would be simple to force a draw from this position, but I wasn't content with that. There was only one appropriate conclusion to the short, bittersweet story of my time with Eleanor: one of us had to checkmate. I didn't care who. I just wanted to keep going, dancing the dance until one of us fell.
Knee jiggling, I stared up at the underside of the cabinet lid, waiting for the bouncing of a wire to signal Eleanor's next move. Instead, all the coils of wires trembled at once and there was the scraping sound of wood against wood. The Countess had drawn her chair back from the table.
“Well,” said the Countess, still in that hateful bray, “I think that's enough.”
No. I came so close to screaming with frustration that I had to thrust a pawn into my mouth and bite hard. Even then, I wanted to break through the wood of the cabinet and kick the Countess on the shin. I might have tried, except that both my legs had fallen asleep.
“I suppose you're right,” Rush responded, reluctantly. I knew she was disappointed. She had wanted me, expected me, to ride effortlessly to a victory over the Countess. No doubt she would take steps later to make sure I understood just how disappointed she was. I found that I didn't care. I was too infuriated.
Come back to the chessboard, you Austrian harpy, I thought at the Countess. Come back and fight!
She didn't hear me, of course, but Eleanor did speak up, albeit weakly. “Aunt Maria, why not finish?”
“Why not finish?” the Countess asked. “Because I'm a bloody old woman and I need my beauty sleep and we've been at this for ages. The machine works. I'm satisfied. We can finish the game tomorrow. It's not as if the Rajah's going anywhere.”
“But...yes, Aunt Maria.” Despite her deferent tone, I knew that Eleanor too was mad with frustration. I hoped that she had something to bite on.
“Very well, then,” Rush said. “Let's complete the transaction.” Click-click-click, went her fingernails on the arm of a chair.
“Indeed,” said the Countess. “I'll draw up the bill of exchange. My pen, Eleanor.”
I heard Eleanor get up obediently, and that's when it all came crashing down. I set my back against the wood of the chest, closed my eyes, and breathed. That was it. Nothing left to look forward to. Nothing was left at all, except for living through each moment as it came, and trying not to think about the one that would come after it.
* * *
There was some talk in low voices that I didn't hear. The scritching of a pen over paper. The fizzing of wax as it formed a seal.
Eleanor said nothing during this time, and in my own mind, I talked to her. I told her I was sorry that we hadn't finished our game, sorry that I had driven her away the day before, sorry that I hadn't told her my secrets and sorry that I hadn't listened to her own. Then I branched out a bit and told her I was sorry that I hadn't saved Von Hausen, sorry that I wouldn't be able to save the garnet girl, sorry for everything that Rush had made me do, sorry for everything that Rush might make me do in the future. I said I was sorry that I wasn't the woman she thought that I was. I thanked her for bringing me that jar of apricot preserves. I said goodbye.
“That's that,” the Countess brayed at last, her chair creaking as she sat back.
“So it is,” Rush answered. In my mind's eye, I could see her pincer-like fingers reaching for the cheque, ready to take it. But then came a pause, and Rush continued in quite a different tone. “What's the matter?”
“Nothing's the matter,” the Countess answered. “You'll have the money in a minute. But first, I think it would be a good idea for you and I to be honest with each other. Don't you?”
“Honest with each other,” Rush said slowly. “I'm sure I don't know what you mean, madam.”
Rush's voice was getting dangerous, but the Countess seemed unaware.
“Let me be explicit,” said the Countess. “I think we should be frank, you and I, about what it is that we're buying and selling. Eleanor, would you?”
Rush blustered, and I heard her rise from her chair, but there was a swoop of skirts as Eleanor approached the Rajah. I expected her to fumble, looking for a way to open the cabinet, but no. With a neat series of click-click-clicks , she deftly tripped the secret latches.
“ NO! ” Rush roared, but it was too late. The cabinet top popped loose and Eleanor swung it open.
One moment, I was hunched over in the familiar blackness of the cabinet. The next, I was awash in gaslight, blinking up at Eleanor's face. And I was still chewing on that wooden pawn. Hastily, I removed it from my mouth and spat out a splinter.
It had happened too suddenly for me to feel much more than numb shock, but one thought managed to penetrate. Eleanor had known exactly where to reach to find the secret latches. And that meant- they had known. They had known all along.
Rush was blustering. “This was not part of the agreement. This-”
“Oh, the agreement, the agreement.” The Countess waved that away. “I'm not trying to weasel out of our agreement, never fear. I just think we can reach a better one. Something to our mutual benefit. Get the girl out of there, Eleanor.”
Eleanor took my hands and helped me up. There was a blankness in her face I had never seen there before, as she followed the Countess's orders.
“What's going on?” I whispered.
She gave me a warning shake of the head. “Don't talk.”
That was the only exchange we had time for. Rush shouldered Eleanor aside, grabbed my wrists, and all but dragged me from the cabinet. My legs were numb from pins and needles, and they buckled under me. Rush caught me by the neck to keep me upright.
“We are leaving,” Rush informed the Countess. “Now.”
“Without your cheque?” The Countess was still holding the bit of paper. She flapped it idly from side to side. “Oh, don't get your knickers in a twist, woman. Sit down. Bring the girl. She should hear the conversation. I did just buy her, after all.”
“How dare you?” Rush asked, puffing up like a garden toad.
The Countess smiled thinly. “I'm old and I'm rich. Does that answer your question?”
“This girl is my cousin-”
“Yes, yes,” the Countess said soothingly, laying the cheque down. “She's your ‘cousin.' And Eleanor is my ‘niece.' I'm not going to quibble about terminology, Miss Rushmore. Call the girl whatever you like. Just come and sit down with her for a moment. Eleanor, a cigar.”
Rush and I both stared at Eleanor as she stepped over to the sideboard and opened a balsa-wood box. Her head was bowed, as if it was suddenly heavy, but when she brought the cigar over to the Countess, I saw her eyes. There were deep crushed-plum circles under both of them, and that's when I knew that she hadn't slept the night before.
That was the first sign. The second was the way she was watching the Countess- as if the old woman was a volcano that might, or might not, erupt any minute. For the past twelve years, I had been watching Rush that way.
Pretend that I know exactly what you're going through, Eleanor had said. Pretend that I, of all people, am uniquely well suited to understand.
No, I thought. No. No. No.
If a human being walks into a room, and sees something that looks like a woman who lives with her aunt, then she'll probably decide that it is a woman who lives with her aunt, simply because it would require too much effort to decide anything else. Even if she's suspicious, she won't do any more than ask a half-hearted question or two, and almost any old answer will satisfy her.
I forgot then that Rush still had hold of my wrist and neck- forgot everything except my sudden need to prove to Eleanor that I understood. I blurted the words straight to her: “It was you. You were the woman who screamed in the attic.”
Eleanor actually flinched at that.
“Oh, don't make cow-eyes,” the Countess said to Eleanor, sounding disgusted. “Don't you see that we have guests? Behave. Give that to me. Sit.”
The Countess gave the orders like Eleanor was a dog, and like a dog, Eleanor obeyed. She sat in an armchair by the side of the Countess, smoothed her skirt, and stared at her folded hands.
This was unthinkable, impossible, absurd. How could Eleanor be...be like me ? In the time I'd spent with her, she'd been so self-assured and carefree. How could she be the woman who had screamed in the night? Were there signs that I hadn't seen? Or did she become a different woman when she was away from the Countess, the same way that Von Hausen changed when she picked up a bottle?
I was so dizzy and sick with feeling that I didn't feel it at first when Rush tugged on my wrist. The second time, her nails bit in. I stumbled after her to a small settee, and sat at her side.
The two of them, Rush and the Countess, faced each other without smiling, but some of the frost had gone from the air. That, I thought, could not mean anything good.
“How about a drink?” the Countess said at last, breaking the quiet.
“That seems appropriate,” Rush answered slowly. Her face was so still, like a carving in ivory.
The Countess nodded. “Drinks, Eleanor.”
Eleanor began to stand, but Rush shook her head. “No. Kit can do it.”
The Countess smiled in chilly approval. “Drinks are on the sideboard, Kit. Two large brandies.”
I went to pour them, glad of the distraction, glad of the chance to turn my back on the scene. Rush and the Countess were like two great serpents, slowly circling each other, assessing each other with dark and opaque eyes.
“So,” Rush began.
“So,” echoed the Countess. “There's no need to look so surprised, Miss Rushmore- or may I call you Diana? You're not the only person in the world with strange appetites.”
“How did I know? After all these years, I know how to recognize a fellow-traveller. Understand, it's not what I expected to find when I asked you here. But once I met your little white mouse, I knew what was what.”
Rush's voice was tight. “How?”
“She's afraid of you. That's one thing. And a word of advice. You're an Englishwoman. Don't try to pass the girl off as your cousin when she's clearly as French as béchamel sauce. And then there's you, Diana. You have a quality about you that's very hard to find. You're a person who's willing to take life by the throat, who's not afraid of the prejudices and follies of small minds. You're a woman who takes what she wants and needs. I like that. I respect that. That's the kind of person I am myself.”
I had taken my time pouring the brandy, but I couldn't spin it out any longer. Carefully, I picked up the two snifters and carried them to Rush and the Countess.
Rush took a long, long gulp, and grimaced at the burn. “You knew how to open up the Rajah.”
The old woman waved a gnarled hand. “I collect secrets as well as curiosities. And I collect a few more exotic items as well.”
“But if you knew about the Rajah,” Rush asked, “and if you knew about...Kit...then what was the point of this charade? Have you been snickering up your sleeve at me for the past week?”
The Countess swirled her brandy, squinting at the caramel droplets as they trickled down the glass. “I wouldn't call it a charade. I needed to...well, to feel you out, as it were. Women like you and me, we can't entrust our secrets to just anyone. Can we, now?”
There was a pregnant pause. Then the Countess looked Rush straight between the eyes, and the flippant tone disappeared from her voice from her voice. “I feel that we understand each other, Diana. I don't know about you, but I am dreadfully tired of being misunderstood.”
Rush didn't answer, but the atmosphere of the room warmed another few degrees.
This was definitely bad news. Both for Eleanor and for me. Desperate, I stared at Eleanor, willing her to look back. But her head was still bowed, as though she was counting every thread in her skirt and refused to look up until she was finished.
Rush cleared her throat. “I think you had better tell me what's up in the attic.”
* * *
“I think you know already,” the Countess said, around her cigar. She wasn't smoking it, exactly- she was sort of chewing on the end, as if it was a carrot.
Rush said, “Tell me anyway.”
The Countess leaned forwards. “Space,” she said. “That's what's up there. Enough space for two or three or four- more than that, if necessary.”
“Two or three or four what?”
A smile hovered around the mouth of the Countess. She said: “You tell me.”
At the same time, she rested her hand lightly on Eleanor's thigh.
I was seized by a sudden desire to break every one of the Countess's fingers, and then light them on fire.
“I had it custom-built,” the Countess went on. “This was some time ago, of course, when I first made peace with my hungers. The rooms are all specially designed. Some are rather cramped- that's for instructional purposes- and others are large enough for long occupancy. I hardly need to tell you that the locks are state of the art.”
So, I thought numbly. That was why Eleanor wouldn't show me her room.
There was a rustling sound. That was Rush's skirts against the settee, as she sat up straighter, her spine rigid with fascination.
Rush asked, “How large is your...collection...at the moment?”
The Countess laughed, and that sounded like a bray as well. “At the moment? Pathetically small.” She dealt Eleanor an absent-minded whack on the shoulder, and Eleanor licked her lips but didn't look up. “You have to understand. I don't get around as well as I used to. With this damn leg, I can't go gallivanting around the market towns, looking for fresh goods. That's why I need you, Diana.”
Rush sat back. I could almost hear her brain whirling. “You need a supplier. Someone to obtain new- items- for your collection.”
“You see? I knew that we understood each other.”
“What's in it for me?”
“Money, for one thing. It's very pleasant to have your whims satisfied, and that's a sensation I'm more than willing to pay for. I'll pay double if you find everything on my shopping list. And I can give you space, too. Space for yourself, and for a collection of your own. There are more than enough rooms in the manor for us both- and more than enough room in the attic. As I said- there's only one tenant up there at the moment.”
Rush's hands closed into fists, and then opened again.
“You'd be able to settle down,” the Countess pointed out. “Aren't you tired of peddling your wares all over Europe like a by-our-lady organ grinder?”
Rush's eyes flicked over to Eleanor, as if she was seeing her for the first time. “Where did you get that one?”
“This one?” The Countess jerked a thumb at Eleanor. “Oh, this one I've had for ages. Her parents didn't know what to do with her after she outgrew the convent schools, so I hired her as a ‘companion.' Six months later, I reported that she'd died of a fever. By then, she knew to keep her mouth shut.”
“Clever,” Rush said, somewhat grudgingly.
The Countess settled back in her chair. “Thank you. I thought so. And her family was better off after they were free of her. Her father was so vastly relieved that he sent me a whole cellar's worth of brandy. I am gladdened by the knowledge that my work benefits my fellow man.” The Countess pointed at me with the butt of her chewed cigar. “What about that one? Where did you get her?”
I waited for Rush to explain about my father and the card game, but she didn't. Her face twitched with a sudden smile. Just as suddenly, it disappeared.
“You're asking for my very best story,” she said. “I don't think that we know each other quite well enough for that yet.”
“So?” The Countess looked disappointed. “Well, then. At least let me know whether you're interested. It is past my bedtime, after all, and I'm tired of blathering.”
Rush's fingernails drummed- click click click. “I am interested,” she admitted, voice soft as powder. “But- you'll excuse me- I'm finding all of this a little bit hard to envision. At the moment.”
The Countess nodded without surprise. “Well, then. May I suggest that we take a little tour of the upstairs?”
* * *
There were four flights of stairs up to the attic. Eleanor went first, with a candle that she shielded from drafts with one long thin hand.
The Countess stomped and muttered her way up the steps, her cane thumping on the floor. After the second flight, she had to stop and take a long breather. Once she stopped wheezing, she looked me over, calculatingly. “I suppose I really should be leaning on you, shouldn't I? You're about the right height.”
“That is a question of some pertinence,” Rush said, musing aloud, as we all started to move again. “Do you actually want to buy Kit?”
Now this I had not expected, and without any conscious thought at all, I began to protest. “But...”
The slap came out of nowhere, walloping me sideways against the wall. I had to grab my jaw hard to be sure that it was still on my face. I was shocked more than hurt, though. It wasn't Rush's style to hit me that way. Or at least, it hadn't been. I was beginning to realize that things really were about to change.
It was several seconds before I could focus on the scene before me again. When I did, the Countess- standing several stairs above me- was frowning.
“Temper, temper,” she reproved Rush. “There are more subtle ways of keeping control.”
“You don't say,” Rush answered drily. “Cease with the lecture and answer me. Do you want Kit?”
The Countess's head tilted, and she looked me up and down. I was braced to see some kind of hunger in her face, the same hunger that took over Rush late at night. Surprisingly, there was nothing of the kind. She just seemed thoughtful.
“You've had her a long while, haven't you?” asked the Countess.
Rush nodded. “You might say that.”
They began to climb again. I stumbled along behind Rush. Eleanor was a shadow at the top of the flight of stairs, an orange halo of candle-light around her.
“Do you normally keep them so long?” the Countess asked.
“How long are you planning to keep her, then?”
“Quite honestly, I haven't decided.” Rush's shadow bobbed on the wall as she climbed. “It's hit and miss with Kit. On her good days, she's rather a special article. On her bad days, I wonder why I even bother.”
The Countess appeared to think about that as she stumped along. “Well, I'd definitely get some use out of her. It's been a long time since I had anyone new.” She stumped up a few more steps. “Yes. If you're selling, then I'm ready to buy. Unfortunate about the bad behaviour, though. If there are discipline issues, it'll probably take me a while to get her used to my habits. I imagine I'll have to keep her in the red room for a longish time, until her education is complete. A few months, I would think.”
We had reached the top of the stairway. A hallway stretched into blackness, the ceiling angled with the slope of the roof. At intervals along the hallway were doors- I could count at least five from where I was standing. God only knew how large a collection the Countess had prepared for.
“The red room?” Rush asked, as if only casually interested.
The Countess pointed with the butt of her cane at the second door down the hall. “That's not one of the spacious rooms. And it has a few special features. Noisy girls who go in there come out quiet.” She raised her voice. “Don't they, Eleanor?”
I had managed to forget, for almost a minute, that Eleanor was in the hallway. That was how motionless she was, as she stood holding the candle. When the Countess addressed her, she swallowed so hard that I could see her throat bob, but she said nothing. The Countess held out a hand, triumphant. “See?”
Rush studied the door of the red room with a kind of detached interest. “Kit can be quite difficult, you know.”
“You don't know what Eleanor was like before I got started on her. I promise you, Kit won't be a problem.”
It's a disorienting to have two people haggle back and forth about your fate in this way, while you stand around waiting to see the outcome. I wondered what I was hoping for. The thought did occur to me that if I ended up in the Countess's attic, I wouldn't be alone there. But it had been bad enough just to hear Eleanor screaming. I didn't want to see it, too.
Come to think of it, I didn't want to see Eleanor doing any of the things that I did. Didn't want to see her at the mercy of the whims of a bored and sadistic woman. Didn't want to see her tip-toeing around her owner, soothing her and placating her. Didn't want to see her shoulders hunch when she cringed, the very same way that I cringed, every day of my goddamn life.
“There's one thing that I should make clear, Diana,” the Countess said. “Just so that we don't have any problems later. If you sell the girl to me, then the girl's mine. I won't have you poking and prodding afterwards and asking nosy follow-up questions about her whereabouts. You have nothing more to do with her. I put her where I want her and I do what I choose with her. Are you prepared to make that bargain?”
I had been staring at Eleanor, the shade of her in the dim light, bent over the candle like a statue of an angel praying. But now I saw a flash of gold. Rush had turned towards me, lips parted so that her false tooth winked.
“Well?” she asked me. “What do you say, Kit?”
I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted to say something very impressive and brave about how if either she or the Countess laid a finger on Eleanor, I would bash their heads against every rock in Europe, from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Ural Mountains. And I didn't want to stop at the threat- I wanted to go ahead and do it. Twice. While screaming. But I never would, would I? No matter how badly I wanted to. If there was one thing I'd learned from my years with Rush, it was how easily I could be controlled. How easily anyone could be controlled.
“Well, Kit?” Rush repeated.
I wondered whether Eleanor and I would ever speak with each other again, after tonight. I had no doubt that a few months in the red room would shut me up, exactly as advertised, for a good long while. Eventually I would get used to the new rules and find my voice. But by the time that happened, the Countess would have decided how to deal with Eleanor and me. She would probably want to drive a wedge between us, goad us and needle us until we longed to scratch each other's eyes out, like two cats trapped in the same sack. If she needed any tips about how to make us despise each other, then Rush, no doubt, would be happy to lend her expertise.
There wouldn't be any more cozy afternoons in the schoolroom, eating apricot jam by the spoonful while talking about worldly-wise French nuns. There wouldn't be any more of those secretive smiles that made the skin crinkle at the corner of Eleanor's eyes, while her hand reached out for mine.
“Kit, you're trying my patience.”
Eleanor was still staring at the damn candle as if she expected to see great truths spelled out in the flame. With her head bent that way, her eyes were invisible, and I thought of my father, slumped at the gaming table, while Rush's hand closed on mine like a claw. Thought of my stupid childhood conviction that everything would have been different for me if he just could have raised his head.
Well, never mind, it hadn't happened that way, and Eleanor couldn't change what was about to happen by looking at me. But perhaps, just perhaps, Eleanor too had spent years wishing that someone had turned around to look at her at a critical moment. Was it stupid to imagine that Eleanor cared whether I saw her now? Never mind that either. If I only had these few moments left before the red room and everything that meant, then I would use them to give Eleanor the only thing that I could. I would show her that in spite of whatever the Countess had done, she wasn't yet invisible. She wasn't a spirit or a shade, some half-dead thing with only one foot left in the living world. And I- well, I was still a little bit more than Rush's wind-up toy. For now, anyway.
“ Kit .” Rush was breathing fast and heavy. “You are not being careful and you are not being clever. I am giving you a chance to register an opinion-”
“Really?” I interrupted her. “I thought you just wanted me to beg.”
There was a frozen moment. I used it to summon up the memory of that golden day with Eleanor- the apricot preserves, the wax garden, the game of the ships- and wrap it around myself like a cloak.
Rush had gone rigid. “What is that supposed to mean?”
I figured that I had five minutes before Rush recovered from her shock and tried to slit my throat. I would make them count. I drew in a careful, controlled breath.
“If you want to sell me, then do it,” I said. It was surprising how level my voice was. “If you don't want to sell me, then don't. But don't insult me by pretending that I have a choice. One way or another, you've already made up your mind. So I'm not going to cower and snivel and cry hysterically and swear to be a good girl forever if you keep me. Although I'm sure you'd enjoy that. By the way, Eleanor, I've been meaning to tell you- I did like Das Fräulein Von Scuderi . I still think that you should give Mr. Dickens a chance, though. He's funny.”
Eleanor's face twisted: a sob, I thought. I moved towards her, not knowing what I would do if I reached her, knowing only that I should be moving in that direction. To my total lack of surprise, Rush recovered from her paralysis, lunging to grip me by the elbow. Her fingers dug in deep, like a pair of pincers.
“Control yourself, Kit,” Rush said, all soft menace now. “You don't want to end up like Caroline.”
I stuttered a laugh. “It's a bit late to tell me that. I'm well on my way to ending up like Caroline. Isn't that why you want to replace me? I know that I don't play your stupid games as well as I used to...”
She cuffed me hard on the side of the head. I couldn't dodge it, but I moved with the blow as best I could.
“Or is it because you have your eye on someone else?” I panted, as Rush raised her hand for another strike. “That's what Caroline believed. She always was smarter than me. Who is it, Rush? Some little girl you saw in town? Does this one play chess? Or is she just...blond?”
Without warning, Rush thrust me away. My back hit the rough plaster and joists of the wall. If some magical force had been keeping my terror at bay, it was melting now. My knees had turned liquid. I had to brace myself against the wall to keep myself from crumpling. But I'd gone this far. I couldn't save myself by stopping now, even if I wanted to.
“She'll hate you, you know,” I whispered. “No matter what you make her say- hell, no matter what you make her think - she'll hate you. And she'll know it, deep in her soul, deeper than all the lies and the pretending. She will never stop hating you.”
“Kit,” Rush breathed.
“ My name is Katherine! ”
The look in Rush's eyes would have cut glass, but what did it matter now? I knew how these things worked. The Countess would probably name me something else- put her own label on me. But she couldn't make me forget. Not me, and not Eleanor, either.
And Eleanor was holding my gaze. It was to her I spoke.
“My name was Katherine,” I said softly. “My name was Katherine and it still is. Katherine, is the name that used to be my name and that continues to be my name. I'm Katherine. Katherine is me. And Eleanor, no matter what happens next, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to meet you.”
Eleanor's eyes were tortured, but she smiled. I didn't know how she could smile, but she did, she did.
“One more thing, Rush,” I said, wheeling on her. “I don't care what you say- you are never going to get that damn counting machine to work.”
And that was that. That last remark used up the last few drops of my energy, and the flame in me went out, as if I was a spirit lamp, burnt dry. I leaned against the wall, trying to control my shaking knees.
Out of the darkness came a word in Rush's quietest and most deadly tone. “Sold.”
“Are you sure?” asked the Countess. She had been eerily quiet for the last few minutes- now she stumped forwards. “She's quite the firebrand. Some people like that kind of thing.”
“I'm positive.” Rush was rubbing her hands together now, as if scrubbing them clean of me. “Give me the cheque and take the girl.”
The Countess produced a large iron key and inserted it into a large iron padlock which secured the door of the red room. “Bring her over here, Eleanor.”
Eleanor shifted her weight. Before she could move, I pushed away from the wall and wobbled my way towards the Countess. Here was one more thing I could do for Eleanor: I could make it unnecessary for her to act as the Countess's enforcer. Perhaps if I had done that for Von Hausen a little bit more often, she wouldn't have drunk quite so much.
“Now, Diana,” the Countess asked, pausing as she drew the door open. “Are you sure you understand my terms? You agree not to interfere? No matter what I have to do to get the girl in line?”
“I don't really see any room for ambiguity.” Rush already had her back to me. She was heading for the stairs.
“No, wait.” The Countess was still serene, unruffled, but there was an edge in her voice now. “I don't want any confusion whatsoever. You know she'll be locked up. You know she'll be hurt. And you know it will keep happening until she's ready to crawl. After which, I will have my wicked way with her in a manner which is illegal throughout the civilized world. Possibly upside down. You won't interfere?”
Rush turned back, nostrils flaring. “I know damn well what you're going to do with her, Maria. I don't give a damn, as long as you get the ungrateful brat out of my sight. It's past time she found out how good she had it with me.”
“Very well, then. Eleanor?”
Eleanor what? I twisted, trying to see what was going on, but the Countess had a gnarled hand at the small of my back, pushing me towards the doorway.
I managed one last look over my shoulder. Rush was staring at me, her expression impossible to read. Was that regret- or even guilt? It didn't matter and anyway, I didn't care.
The Countess gave one last push, and I stumbled forwards, into the red room.
* * *
The first thing that I saw was...
Nothing. I turned around and around. It was a large room, and it was completely empty, more bare even than the garret at Whitebrook. At least the garret had a cot and a pitcher and bowl. Here there was nothing, just bare planks, to which a few tatters of faded red wallpaper clung. There was nothing on the floor but footprints in a thick carpet of dust.
The dust swirled around me as the door banged shut. Eleanor was hurrying over. “Are you all right, Katherine?” she asked breathlessly.
I just gaped at her, trying to make sense of this new development. Eleanor looked different all of a sudden. Her face was eager, and her eyes were feverishly bright.
“Never mind,” Eleanor said immediately, answering her own question. “I'll explain in a minute; just stay in here until it's over.”
“Until it's over...?”
That was when I heard Rush, out in the hall. “ What is the meaning of this ?”
Her voice was loud and furious, but there was something more, something I had never heard from her before. Could it, possibly, be fear?”
And then there was another voice, low and venomous: “You damned unnatural woman.”
What made me suck in a sharp breath was this: the new voice, without any question, belonged to a man. A large man, heavy and barrel-chested.
I couldn't see the scene unfolding in the hallway, but after all my years in the Rajah, I knew how to interpret action by ear alone. Those heavy footsteps tromping on the floorboard- those footsteps didn't belong to Rush, in her practical-yet-fashionable shoes, or to the Countess, in her black slippers. There were several men out there, tromping in heavy boots.
“City constables,” Eleanor explained, though I hadn't asked. “Great-Aunt Maria is a bit of a recluse, but she still has connections. We had one of them hiding behind a curtain in the drawing room, and two more behind the first door on the attic landing.”
More noises: scuffling, yelling, oaths and threats, walls banging, a sharp yelp of pain. I looked from Eleanor, to the door, and back to Eleanor. “But what are they doing?”
“They're arresting Miss Rushmore,” Eleanor said matter-of-factly. “At least, they had better be arresting her. If they don't arrest her after everything that Aunt Maria and I just got her to say, I really don't know what they would arrest someone for. Littering, perhaps?” She peeked out the door. “No, it's all right, they're definitely arresting her. Either that, or playing a strange game that involves dragging one of the players downstairs. In handcuffs. I think it's a safe bet that they're arresting her.”
I was beginning to hyperventilate. My chest moved faster and faster, as my throat constricted to the size of a straw. Eleanor didn't seem to notice.
“Wait just a minute,” she said. “I'll be back, but there's one thing I have to tell that woman before she goes.”
She clanged purposefully out of the door. I groped my way backwards to a corner and slid down to the bare dusty planks. My lungs were shrivelled, starving. I had no air, no air, no air...
I heard it all anyway, through an asphyxiated haze. Eleanor's quick footsteps chased the others down the hall. “Miss Rushmore!”
Rush's voice was a bewildered sputter. Eleanor took a long pause, and then pronounced one word, with what sounded like profound satisfaction:
* * *
Seconds afterwards, my air ran out, and blackness ran over my eyes like liquid tar. Everything was dark for a while. Then came a sharp acrid smell. It made me inhale against my will, as though someone was pumping the gas forcibly into my lungs.
I struggled upwards, and found Eleanor kneeling inches away from me, waving a tiny bottle in front of my nose. Smelling salts. “Oh, thank God,” she said, when she saw me breathe. “Katherine, I'm so sorry. This was hell on you. I wish there had been a way to warn you in advance.”
The Countess was looming behind Eleanor, studying me with sharp black eyes. “She looks a little blue,” said the Countess contemplatively. “I suppose that means that I was convincing.”
“You were brilliant, Aunt Maria,” Eleanor said over her shoulder, as she thumbed the cork back into her bottle of salts.
“I know I was brilliant. Of course I was brilliant. That's not the point. The point is that we seem to have broken the girl. I didn't think that was the plan.”
None of this made any sense at all. I scanned the room.
“Where's Rush?” I whispered.
“Downstairs.” That was Eleanor again. “We're just waiting for the carriage from the prison. Then they'll take her away. You won't see her again...Katherine, Katherine, don't panic!”
Too late. I was already choking for breath, my heart pounding so hard I saw stars.
It was the worst attack I'd ever had, worse even than the times when Rush had forced me outside, to stare up at the great toothed void of the sky. Giants were beating at my chest with iron-spiked maces, crushing it with hobnailed boots. Barbed wire nooses drew tight around my throat. Sweat rolled off my forehead and pooled under my arms, hot as molten lead. I tore at the floor with numb fingers, trying to find something to grip. My chest was going to cave in, every one of my ribs splintering, and my lungs would be squeezed to fleshy pulp.
This time I was going to die. I knew that as if I'd received a memorandum directly from heaven, signed Jesus.
A firm hand cupped the back of my head and moved it forwards. Then there was the bitter stink of smelling salts again. I gasped.
“Listen to me, Katherine,” Eleanor said. She was speaking very calmly- for my sake, I think, because her face was tight with worry and confusion. “I don't know exactly what's wrong, but I want to help you. What will help you?”
Rush. It was that simple, wasn't it? She had warned me enough times. Without her, I would spend the rest of my life as a ragged ghost, picking oakum in a workhouse cell, or servicing men in an alleyway until I was rotten with syphilis and all my teeth were smashed out. Rush was gone, they were taking her away, and if I didn't fix it now , I would lose my only chance of survival. If I didn't fix it, I would never see Rush again. I would never see Rush again...
There was no sound in the room except my straining breaths.
“Towser,” I heard myself choke. “I need...Towser.”
“The dog,” Eleanor muttered. She sprang to her feet. “She means the dog, she needs the dog, get the damn dog!”
Things whirled around me for the next few minutes. I think that I blacked out again. Eleanor waved the smelling salts at me until her hand shook and she spilled half of them down the front of my shirt. I wheezed and panted and ached and retched and wished a thousand times that I could just die already and get it over with. Then a black nose butted the door open and Towser padded inside, tongue lolling.
He gave a surprised little whuff when I lunged across the room. He even backed up a couple of steps. But after that first instant, he gave a tolerant sigh, letting me grab him around his warm, bulky middle.
I thrust my face deep into his fur, filling my nose with the wet-rug smell of him. Towser whuffled. It seemed that he wanted to ask what was going on, but was too polite to say so. The full weight of his head came down to rest on my shoulder.
“Better?” Eleanor asked cautiously. She was hovering, but not too close.
Before I tried answering, I threaded my fingers together, locking my arms around Towser's chest. Yes, that did help. If the sky was going to swallow me now it would have to swallow Towser as well and he weighed a million pounds.
From her post in the doorway, the Countess gave an amused snort. “You do pick difficult projects, Eleanor. You could just have taken up scrapbooking, you know.”
The panic surged again. I pointed at the Countess with my chin, so that I wouldn't have to let go of Towser. “Eleanor, who the hell is that woman?”
“There's nothing to be worried about...”
“Is she actually your aunt?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, my great-aunt, but same theory. It's all true, what I told you before. I live with Aunt Maria because I don't get along with my parents. I'm not her cowering victim, and there are no improvised dungeon cells in this attic. I know we must have terrified you with the playacting tonight, but I needed to do something to make Rushmore show her hand. I'd hoped you would confide in me, but it wasn't happening, and it wasn't happening, and I couldn't just let her take you away...”
“Don't lie to me.” To my horror, my eyes were stinging again. “There was a woman screaming in the attic. I heard it. Again and again, I heard it. You're not going to tell me that I imagined that. I...”
That was as far as I got. Eleanor threw up her hands and turned to train a look of total exasperation on the Countess. “You see? I told you that she heard it. Honestly, Aunt Maria, you promised you would stop.”
“Did not,” the old lady countered. “Or if I did, I can't remember doing it, so it doesn't count.”
“Oh, you dozy frump.”
I tightened my grip around Towser. “No more mysteries. I can't stand any more mysteries. You explain and you explain right now.”
“I am explaining.” Eleanor sighed. “My aunt doesn't mix in polite society much anymore. I have mentioned that, haven't I? There's a reason for that. Society annoys her. If she has to spend any length of time curtseying and posturing and being courteous to people she hates, she gets so irritated that it's all she can do to keep from howling. That's why we have the red room. It's so that when she gets cantankerous, she can go up to the attic and...well...let off a little steam.”
The Countess nodded agreeably. “I let off a little steam. Exactly. A little running, a little yelling.”
Eleanor blew out a frustrated breath. “The running is not a problem. The yelling, even, is not a problem. The nudity, on the other hand, is a problem.”
“Now, now. Don't give me a hard time about the nudity. It's very cathartic. You thought so when you tried it.”
“I never - oh, all right, all right, I have. But just the once! The way you tell the story, you make it sound like I fling my clothes off on a daily basis. You're the eccentric of the family, Aunt Maria. Not me.”
“You say eccentric, I say honest. You have a real bee in your bonnet about nudity and it doesn't make sense. I fail to see what is wrong with a little healthy self-expression.”
“Nothing. Unless, of course, you do it in front of the vicar at the tea table which I am going to keep mentioning. That poor man will never recover. Will you behave? You're frightening Katherine.”
“Nonsense. I'm inspiring Katherine. You'll see.”
Eleanor looked at me apologetically. “It'll take me a while to explain everything. The important thing is that nobody is going to hurt you. I only want to help. It's why I brought you here in the first place.”
I whispered: “You brought me here?”
“And on that awkward note,” the Countess said, shifting her grip on her cane, “I think I should absent myself for a while, until the explanations are over. I shall watch the constables stuff Rushmore into the prison carriage. Anyone want to take a bet on whether she's going to cry?”
* * *
Somehow, Eleanor and I ended up in a small sitting room, off the main parlour. There were no windows, and with only a single candle lit, the darkness hung around like the folds of a thick soft quilt. Towser was on the settee beside me, his head and one paw on my thigh. Eleanor sat nearby on a threadbare velvet pouffe, twiddling her thumbs nervously.
“How are you feeling?” asked Eleanor. For the first time in our acquaintance, she seemed almost embarrassed.
I stroked Towser slowly before I tried to answer. My chest still hurt, but by taking shallow breaths, I could manage. “You've been lying to me, haven't you?”
She winced. “No. Or- maybe. I haven't been telling you everything, but Katherine, I wanted to. Aunt Maria said-”
“The truth,” I interrupted her. “The truth, from the beginning. No more secrets.”
“No more secrets,” she echoed. “Very well. From the beginning, then.”
Eleanor ran a hand back over her hair. It was mussed from all the action in the attic. “The beginning. It all starts with chess. We've been playing against each other for the past few days, you know.”
“I know. I figured out your fan trick. Go on.”
“Right. Well. I told you about the time when I saw Johannes Maelzel exhibiting the Turk? Back when I was at that convent school in France?”
“Smoke and varnish, must and mystery.”
“Yes. The mystery infected me. It drove me wild. I knew that the Turk wasn't a true machine- I knew there was some trick to it. But I couldn't figure it out how it was done. The night after I first saw the Turk play, I lay awake almost until dawn, thinking. It was no good trying to go to sleep anyway. Sisters Bernadette and Angelique were being particularly noisy that night. So I lay there, thinking, thinking, hour after hour- and I decided that I simply had to see the machine again.
“So I went back. The very next night, I escaped from the convent again, and returned to the village. I asked around a bit until I found the inn where Maelzel was staying, with his retinue. I got in through the back door. Pretended to be delivering cabbages to the kitchen. The cooks stared at me oddly, but I had a very winning smile in those days and nobody had the heart to throw me headfirst out the door. I snuck upstairs. I found Maelzel's room. I knocked. Maelzel answered.”
I shook my head, dumbfounded. “If you'd tried that with Rush, she would have had you skinned, one inch at a time.”
Eleanor waved that aside. “It was a stupid thing to do. I admit it. I can't even count the ways in which it could have gone horribly wrong. But it didn't, and this is why: At the moment when I knocked at the door, Maelzel was pacing around and around the room in a state of total desperation. The Turk was due to perform in half an hour for the Duke of Saxony, and the man who was supposed to be operating the machine was face-down on the floor in a pile of puke. Drunk as a pickled fish. Too soused to stand or see, let alone play a respectable game. And Maelzel was wondering whether to come clean or swallow a bullet. He couldn't simply cancel the match. He had debts upon debts by then and all his creditors were getting very cranky. Cranky enough to send large gentlemen with cudgels in through the hotel windows. When he yanked the door open, his face was a vivid shade of green.
“Well, I saw Maelzel's face, and I saw the drunk man on the floor, and I put two and two together, and I casually mentioned to Maelzel that I was a fair chess player myself. He got very silly, I'm afraid. Blubbered all down the front of my shirt, he was so relieved. Now mind you, I was thirteen years old, and he knew nothing about me, but someone had to be inside the Turk that night, and it was me or the cat. He explained to me how to work the thing- all in one long sentence- and then I stripped down to my shift and he stuffed me inside.”
I stared, a little dumbstruck. “You operated the Turk.”
“You escaped from your convent school, went to Maelzel's hotel room, hopped in the Turk and went off to beat the Duke of Saxony?”
“I won, so I was doing something right. Oh, there's no need to be impressed. The Duke wasn't exactly a chessmaster. He kept asking whether it was time to roll the dice. Still. I won and I didn't break anything and Maelzel collected his fee and he was almost cringingly grateful afterwards. And so was the Turk's real operator, once he swam his way back towards consciousness.”
I sat up straighter, heart pounding. “Who was the Turk's real operator?”
It was getting a little easier to talk as I got caught up in the story. But the question earned me a surprised look from Eleanor.
“Isn't it obvious, Katherine? It was Mouret.”
I'm not ashamed to say that my voice grew a little bit screechy. “Mouret? Jacques Mouret? ”
“The not-quite-as-great-as-Philidor-but-almost and not-quite-as-immortal-as-Philidor-but-almost Jacques Mouret? He was the Turk's operator?”
“Well, he was one of them. The Turk was built in 1770. It's had quite a number of operators over the years- including me. But the Turk's greatest battles were fought with Mouret at the helm. He was the operator for the Turk's London tour in 1819, and he was still in the Turk when I saw it perform. Lucky for me. The man was an artist.”
I rested my chin on the top of Towser's head as I tried to process all this. It made my stomach twist painfully to hear about Mouret's old brilliance, now that I knew how he had declined and died. At the same time, it was good to remember that the great chessmaster's ugly death didn't erase everything that had come before.
Eleanor's tense expression was making me nervous. It was... apologetic, somehow. As though she'd wounded me terribly, and I just hadn't found out yet.
“Very well,” I said, treading carefully. “You crushed the self-respect of the Duke of Saxony. Was that the last time you were inside the Turk?”
She seemed to relax, just a little. “No, not at all. Maelzel stayed in town for the next few months. He was trying to put the money away for his American tour. The village didn't offer much in the way of entertainment, and Maelzel owed me big, so I visited quite a bit. Maelzel turned out to be a bore, but Mouret was something else altogether. Such a fickle and unsteady genius. He took a liking to me and we played some cards and a great deal of chess. I never came close to beating him but I learned a great deal. When I wasn't sulking and throwing books around in frustration.”
“And Maelzel let you come and go as you liked?”
“He did. I was useful. Mouret was getting...less reliable, by then. You know he was a drinker. I took over the Turk on the nights when Mouret wasn't fit to play, which seemed to be happening more and more often. Well. That went on for some months. But eventually Maelzel collected the rest of the money he needed, and the Turk went off to America, and Mouret stayed behind. Maelzel had asked him to go. Begged him, in fact. But Mouret was sick of travel, sick of boxes, sick in general. He told me- and I remember this clearly- he told me that his nervous system was all out of order, like a broken violin, and he needed someone to put him back in tune. He said...he said that meeting me had made him realize that there was someone who might be able to help him. That was why he went back to Paris.”
There was silence in the room, except for a tiny rap as some suicidal housefly rammed against the wall headfirst. Once again, Eleanor was looking at me with that apologetic stare. A creeping unease was curling through me. I was beginning to understand.
“Go on,” I said tightly. “Tell me the rest.”
Eleanor paused, clearly reluctant, but, with a deep sigh, she went on. “I'm sure you can guess the rest. He went back to Paris to find his daughter. He was never married, Mouret, but there was a young dancer he used to visit quite often and...well, matters took their natural course. Mouret didn't take much interest in his child during the early stages of her life. He wasn't a family man. But then...then he met me, and he got to like me. He liked being able to teach me something. So...”
Her voice tapered out, but I didn't need to hear any more.
“So he came back to Paris,” I said, my voice strangely thick. “And he taught me to play chess.”
The door crashed open then, and I jumped three feet in the air, but it was only the Countess. She stalked inside with her usual thumping steps, her cane hitting the ground hard. I got the sense that she was immensely pleased with herself.
“Well, I got rid of Rushmore,” she announced to nobody in particular. “She roared like a tiger when they threw her in the carriage. I don't know about those constables, though. I asked would they please let me trample on her head for a while and they just pretended I hadn't spoken. Not very helpful. Not very polite. How's our little white mouse? Still breathing? Have you told her what's what, Eleanor?”
“I'm right in the middle of the story,” Eleanor said. “You're interrupting, Aunt Maria. You're being very rude. You should apologize and throw ashes on your head and cry yourself to sleep.”
“I am not interrupting.” The Countess threw herself onto the other end of the couch where I was sitting. It creaked complainingly under her weight. “I thought you'd want to know what happened to the stinking bitch.”
“What? She is a stinking bitch. Are you going to sit there and tell me that she isn't a stinking bitch? What about you, Katherine? Are you going to be scandalized if my language is a little bit salty? I know you're young, but surely you've heard the words before.”
“You're confusing her,” Eleanor accused. “You're making her think that we're barbarians. Katherine- you mustn't mind my aunt. She thinks herself very funny and there's really nothing to do but ignore her. Unless you're prepared to break a vase over her head.”
I stared at them both. It wasn't the swearing that had me shocked- when it came to swearing, Von Hausen could have topped the Countess any day of the week. No, the confusing thing was the steady flow of banter between those two, which was unlike anything I'd ever seen or heard. It was hard to figure out who, if anyone, was actually angry, and who, if anyone, was going to get bashed on the head with a piece of bric-a-brac.
The Countess adjusted her bulk on the sofa. “Just go on with the story, Eleanor. I'll be quiet unless I feel like not being quiet, in which case I won't.”
“She's hopeless,” Eleanor informed me.
“I'm old!” the Countess crowed triumphantly. “There comes a time when you just don't give a tinker's fart what anyone thinks, and that's when life begins to get good. Go on with the story before the mouse faints.”
Eleanor's head whipped around. “Are you all right, Katherine? Do you need anything? A glass of wine?”
“I'm fine,” I said. I was probably a bit glassy-eyed by then, but I wasn't about to pass out. I had detached from the scene, that was all. The two of them didn't seem to need me for whatever they were doing.
“Let me tell you the rest, then.” Eleanor fidgeted with a fold of her dress. “Mouret and I stayed in touch after I finished school and returned to Austria. I was bored, he was bored, we found each other interesting, so we corresponded for years. You can see the letters if you like; I have them all upstairs. When he started to get to know you, he sent letters the size of small Bibles. You fascinated him, Katherine. Mostly because you learned so fast. He once wrote to me that teaching you was like touching gunpowder with a match.”
My chest was getting tight again, and this time, it had nothing to do with panic. “He told me the same thing.”
That made her stop short: “What?”
“I remember that. At least, I think I do. It was so long ago. Go on. Just go on, I can't talk.”
She still looked worried, but the Countess thumped her stick on the floor hard. “Finish it,” the old lady advised Eleanor. “No point stopping now.”
“No. And there isn't much more.” Eleanor leaned forwards. “He taught you to play. You were good- very good. Brilliant, even, considering how young you were. So good that he began to bring you to the Café de la Regence so that he could show you off to his friends. You shouldn't have been allowed inside, of course- you were a girl, you were a child- but he was Mouret, and he was a legend, so he was allowed to break the rules. He brought you there more and more often. Until, one day...”
Silence in the room- or near silence. The Countess said quietly, “Spit it out.”
Eleanor drew in a breath as though she was drawing back a bowstring. “Your father was a drinker. That was true when I first met him, and it never did change. Not even when he had you to pique his interest and fill his time. One day, when he had been showing you off at the Café de la Regence, he had a few too many drinks- and then he had a few more on top of that. The inevitable happened. He passed out at a table and woke up six hours later. By that time, you were gone.”
I was gone, because Rush had led me away, while my father was slumped at a gaming table, dead to the world, his back facing me.
“He searched wildly,” Eleanor went on. “He hunted down all his friends and questioned them, half-mad with the drink and the fear . And his friends had seen you. They saw you walking away from the café, with a dark-haired lady who was holding your hand. They thought it was your mother. Mouret knew, of course, that your mother was a redhead.”
She was, too, now that I came to think about it. Strange that Eleanor knew that, when I had forgotten.
“He searched,” Eleanor said again. “He paid others to search- constables and city sergeants. Nothing. He had to go and tell your mother. She spent the better part of a night shrieking at him and hitting him about the head and shoulders. Then she threw him out and she never spoke with him again.
“Mouret went back to his drink and cronies and his chessboard after that- what else could he do? Still, when he began to write to me again, his letters were strange- disjointed. Sometimes he raved. At himself, at the world, at your mother, at me. He drove himself to insanity, imagining what had happened to you, and then he hated you for making him imagine. It just got worse over the years. Whole pages without any punctuation. Once, he simply sent me an envelope full of dead leaves.
“There was one letter that he sent near the end. The handwriting was very small, tightly controlled, like an angry whisper. Just a single sentence, over and over: Why didn't she scream? Why didn't she scream? Why didn't she scream ?”
She nudged a teacup nearer to my shaking hand. “Drink, Katherine.”
The Countess was idly drumming her stick against the arm of the sofa. “I have to admit,” she announced. “That's the part that interests me, too.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Eleanor snapped, wheeling on her aunt. “Would you please give her a moment?”
“She can have all the moments she likes, once I have answers. I think I've been fairly patient about this whole business, Eleanor. I didn't argue when you told me you wanted to invite a sideshow act to my manor house, so you could check whether your old penpal's daughter was hidden in the luggage. I didn't even argue when you asked me to pretend to be a by-our-lady pervert, just so you could flush her out. But I'm impatient and I'm cranky and I don't like to wait, so let's have it. Katherine, why in the name of the living god did you leave your father and trot away with a woman whom you didn't know from Adam? What did the stinking bitch tell you?”
Eleanor held up a hand. “Don't answer that. There's no need-”
There was no conscious thought behind the words. They just popped out. “She said I belonged to her now.”
“What?” the old lady snapped. “Why?”
“Because my father sold me. Or he lost me in a game of cards. Same difference.”
“And you believed the bitch?”
Another minute of silence followed.
“Well, hell,” the Countess said in the end. “I think we need a fresh pot of tea here, am I correct?”
* * *
It was Eleanor who made the tea, using a Russian samovar that sat on a sideboard. While she did that, I hugged my knees, trying to match up three separate pictures in my head. First there was Mouret, the legendary chessmaster, radiant with genius; then there was the kind shabby man I remembered as my father; then there was the pathetic drooling wreck of the man who died in idiocy and despair.
Slowly, I asked: “Why didn't you help him? Why didn't you send him money once he started to have trouble?”
Eleanor's shoulders slumped. “I would have if I could have.”
“Of course you could have! Your aunt is stinking rich!”
The Countess let out a loud guffaw. “Rich? Of course. That's why I keep only three servants and my house is falling down around my ears. Wake up, mouse.”
Once again, I had to try to rearrange my perceptions. “You mean- you don't have enough money to fix the house?”
“Katherine, I barely have enough money to buy cheese. I may be a Countess, but I don't have estates. I've got the right to reside in this house as long as I live, and a very modest income from a few annuities. That's it. But Eleanor didn't think that Rushmore would be interested in paying us a visit if she knew that little detail. So we had to pretend otherwise. I quite like pretending to be wealthy. It's liberating.”
“But you promised to pay Rush all that money...”
“Yes, so it's a good thing she was arrested. If that hadn't happened, I would have had to pretend to be senile as soon as the bill came due. Mind you, pretending to be senile usually works, when you need to get out of paying for something. Try it yourself in fifty years or so.”
Eleanor passed out the fresh tea. “Shall I finish the story?”
It didn't take long, because I had guessed the main details already. Eleanor, a puzzle-solver by nature, obsessed with every mystery she encountered, never stopped wondering what had happened to Mouret's child. And her old mentor's decline into poverty and madness hardened her will. At first, she couldn't do anything but guess and speculate, but then, articles about a chess machine called the Rajah began to appear in newspapers. As a former operator of the Turk, Eleanor knew very well how the illusion was performed, but two details caught her attention. First, the Rajah was smaller than the Turk, and so would require a smaller operator. Second, the person who exhibited the Rajah was a dark-haired woman.
“It was all wild guesswork,” Eleanor said, sipping her tea. “Or at least, it was guesswork until I bought a pamphlet recording some of the Rajah's games. That match between the Rajah and St. Amant in Paris? That was art. It was also pure Mouret. The way you began with the French Defence and then sacrificed on queen's pawn five...”
“That was a good match,” I said, warming as I remembered it. “Of course, Lecrivain destroyed me in another game, half an hour later.”
“The point is, when I saw it, I was certain that I knew where Mouret's daughter was. When I did some research, I found out that the Rajah had been around long before you were taken, but that meant nothing. The Turk had dozens of operators; why not the Rajah as well? So when I found that the Rajah was back in Austria, I convinced Aunt Maria to lure it here so I could do a little more digging. You know the rest. You arrived and I played detective. I agonized over whether I should just tell you the truth...”
“Honestly, she did,” the Countess said with a long-suffering sigh. “I had to hear her moaning about it for at least four hours a day.”
“...But the problem was, you always seemed so afraid, so jumpy. I didn't know how you'd react. It seemed at least possible that you would go and relay everything I told you to Rushmore.”
I probably would have, I admitted to myself.
“So I tried to get you to confide in me. You wouldn't, so there was only one option left: Miss Rushmore had to be made to confess, in front of witnesses. Hence the elaborate charade. I had a feeling we could get her to sing if we piped her the right kind of music.”
I shifted. That was what bothered me. “But how did you know what to say? How did you know what she...liked?”
The Countess laughed a braying laugh. “The woman never shut up for five seconds at a time, that's how! Morning, noon, and night, it was speech after speech about discipline and power. Everything from the upbringing of Queen Victoria to the African slave trade. It took very little imagination to figure out what might interest her. God on high, the woman was repulsive. If I hadn't been able to go to the red room and scream my head off every so often, I probably would have shot her.” She pulled pensively at her chin. “I now wonder why I went to such lengths to keep myself from shooting her.”
The thought seemed to depress her. She sat back gloomily.
“Still,” I persisted. “It was risky to assume that she'd discuss her habits with a couple of total strangers.”
“Was it?” Eleanor asked. “I suppose it was, in a way- but at the end of the day, Katherine, don't we all want to feel understood? Don't we all want to be...seen?”
I couldn't really argue with that, I supposed. I scratched Towser in the hollow places behind his ears until another point occurred to me. “You wouldn't let me see your room.”
Eleanor blanched. “I...well, that is, you see, I...”
“Eleanor's a slob,” the Countess told me confidingly. “You wouldn't think that a woman who irons her stockings would be a slob, but such is the painful truth. She didn't want you to see the chamber of disasters that is her bedroom, with her underclothing strewn festively over every surface and four-foot stacks of newspaper making a wall around her bed. Now, mouse, it's your turn to explain things.”
The Countess rested her chin on the head of her cane, thought for a few seconds, and snorted. “I still don't understand. The bitch just took you by the hand and walked you away from your father? That was all she had to do? And make up some transparent lie about winning you in a card game?”
“Aunt Maria, leave it,” Eleanor said warningly.
“Leave it, nothing. That stinking bitch had you for twelve years, correct? And it's not as if she kept you in a dungeon underground. You were in hotels, drawing rooms, public streets, mansions. Even if you were inside a box, Katherine, why didn't you scream for help?”
Why didn't you scream for help? This was the very first time that someone asked me that question. In the months that followed, I would hear it over and over and over, and it was always posed in the same half-pitying half-mocking tone. In the end, someone asked it once too often and I snapped and threw a full pot of boiling coffee at his head. He yelled and blustered a bit, and the Countess said that he had better leave the house immediately because there was still a teapot on the table and if people were going to be flinging crockery around, then by God, she wasn't about to be left out of the fun.
Eleanor told me after I threw the coffee pot that I probably shouldn't make a habit of that kind of thing, but she was glad that I'd done it the once.
The point is, if someone even asks that question, it proves that they don't have the right to an opinion. They don't understand- they can't imagine, really- what it means to be turned into a machine. They don't understand how certain things become impossible after you're put through that kind of transformation. It's all right that they don't understand. I wouldn't wish on anyone the experiences that are necessary to make it all make sense.
But that doesn't mean that I've forgiven the human race completely. There were so many people over the years who caught a glimpse, who had their suspicions, who felt that something was wrong somehow, but who chose not to look too closely. I suppose I've transferred to people at large the same feelings of disappointment and bewilderment that I used to feel about my father, when I thought of him on that last day, slumped in his shabby coat at the gaming table, with his back to me. Always and forever, his back to me.
People ask me: Why didn't you scream? I ask people: Would you have paid any attention if I had? And I don't suppose I'll ever get an answer.
Von Hausen knew all this, because she lived it too. She lived it for years before I came into the picture. And that, more than anything, is why I miss her so terribly. No other person on the planet understood me as she did, and I can't forgive myself for not realizing that until it was too late.
I didn't yet have the words to explain all of this to the Countess, but for the first time I could remember, anger was collecting in my chest, like rising bile. Blindly, I reached out and grabbed the first thing that came to hand. Fortunately, it was a cushion rather than a brick, because without even pausing for thought, I swung it at the Countess with all my strength.
She moved her head back almost in time, but I still delivered a glancing blow that knocked her spectacles askew. Eleanor let out a startled noise, not quite a gasp. I froze, but the next thing I heard was a mighty guffaw. The Countess's whole body jiggled with laughter as she leaned over to slap me on the back.
“That's better, much better,” she announced. “Now I have hope. If you're going to be living here, mouse, you're going to have to show some ginger. I don't have much patience for people who can't stick up for themselves.”
“If I'm going to be living here?” I repeated blankly.
“Do you have anywhere else to go?” She paused for only a second. “Well, you have relatives in France, I suppose, and we can write to them if you insist. But Eleanor will make my life miserable if you leave.”
Eleanor massaged her head. “Thank you so much for making me sound like a crazy person.”
“Darling. You've spent the last five years reading ten newspapers a day, trying to track down your dead penpal's missing daughter. ‘Crazy' doesn't begin to describe you.”
“Says the woman who wants to buy a guillotine for her living room.”
“Bugger off. You know that a guillotine could come in handy.”
“The point , Katherine, is that we would like you to stay. I would like you to stay. Perhaps we don't know each other that well yet...”
Yes, I thought: good point. And yet it wasn't quite true, was it?
“You're the Turk,” I told her. “I've always known you.”
Eleanor, her eyes suddenly wet, reached out for my hand. I suppose we would have had what is colloquially described as A Moment. But the Countess guffawed and smacked her cane against the ground.
“Look at this,” she announced triumphantly. “The Rajah and the Turk, together at last. Quite a coup for a collector of oddities. That settles it, mouse. You're staying.”
I don't know what I intended to say. I certainly wasn't about to object. But Eleanor interrupted as if she was afraid to let me finish.
“Please,” she said. “Katherine. Please.”
I swallowed hard: she meant it. Her face, so kind and eager, seemed to me then to be a sort of open door. Dangerous, and exotic, and new, with light pouring through from the other side. A whole host of things had just become possible, and that fact made my body go almost liquid with panic. But I narrowed my focus. One thing in particular was possible now, and the thought of it managed to overshadow everything else.
“Eleanor,” I said. “Could we...?”
My voice died out, but that didn't matter. Eleanor laughed delightedly. “Of course we can.”
“Right now, if you like.”
“Oh, for the love of Christ.” The Countess let her head loll back against the wall. “You two are going to play chess, aren't you?”
“Why not?” I asked, stung.
“Why not? Why not? That stinking pervert who kidnapped you and kept you in a box has been forcing you to play since you were ten! Aren't you ready for a little break from the chess circuit?”
“Aunt Maria,” Eleanor sighed. “Do you have any idea how long she and I have been waiting for this?”
The Countess gave up, and began to heave herself to her feet, with the help of her cane. “I need people in my life who have interests beyond chess.”
Eleanor laughed. “Then you have the wrong roommates.”
“I do. Ungrateful brats, both of you. I ought to get rid of you and buy some cats instead.”
“You hate cats.”
“True. Damn. Another good plan ruined.”
The Countess headed for the door, giving Eleanor's shoulder a heavy absent-minded pat as she passed by. “Well, girls, I'm for bed. Don't stay up too late. Eleanor, you'll find somewhere for our white mouse to sleep, won't you?”
“Good.” The Countess gave me a light rap under the chin, grinning when I jumped. “Are you going to fall apart again tonight? Do I need to worry?”
There was a dare in those glittering black eyes, and I rose to it without even thinking. “If you don't get out of here, I'm going to find another cushion and then I'll give you something to worry about.”
That time she actually cackled. “Girly, I'm beginning to like you.”
She picked up a candle and stumped towards the door, cane smacking on the wooden floor. “Sleep well, brats. Or, you know, don't. You could stay up all night. That would be fine too. But if you don't come to breakfast on time, I'm eating all the muffins myself. And the jam. Fair warning.”
As she thudded off down the hall, Eleanor's face turned to me, radiant in the firelight.
“Ready?” she asked.
* * *
We set up the board in the parlour, and for the first time I could remember, I sat across from a living opponent at the board. My growing excitement made it hard to sit still. Eleanor was right, I'd been waiting so long for this game- and when it was over, I would know my rescuer so much better.
Chess may not be real life, but it still tells you a lot about people. Caroline Von Hausen made daring, reckless moves, sacrificing for the greater good, even though she knew that it might cost her everything. Eleanor laid wickedly cunning traps, playing with such serene control that you never knew what she was up to until the endgame. Then there was Mouret…my father…who had such style and brilliance, and yet made such stupid mistakes.
And what about me? Well, that was simple. I usually started a game with the odds stacked heavily against me, and somehow managed to win anyway.
With her right hand, Eleanor nudged the queen's pawn two squares forward. Her left hand slid across the table until it was almost, but not quite, touching mine.
“Your turn,” she said.
That's the thing about pawns, I thought, light-headed. They're not pawns anymore, once they reach the far side.
And then I reached out to make my move.
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