Somewhere between Paris and London
I do not care for infants, and even if I did, I should not care for this one. It is decidedly moist," I protested to Stoker, thrusting the child towards him. He took it with good grace and it emitted a sort of cooing sound. "It seems to like you," I observed.
I could not find fault with the child on that score. From his thirst for adventure to his avid intelligence, Stoker was an eminently likeable man when he was in good spirits. (The fact that he was superbly fit and partial to reciting Keats in moments of tenderness entered into my assessment of him not in the slightest. I am, after all, a woman of science.)
Stoker dandled the infant on his knee and it regarded him solemnly, eyes wide and round. I use the word "infant" in its loosest interpretation. It had, in fact, been born some nine or ten months before and possessed the appropriate number of teeth and skills for a child of that age. If we had permitted, it would have roamed the first-class compartment where we were comfortably ensconced en route from Paris to London. The fact that the journey included a Channel crossing via boat train was one of a dozen considerations in bringing along the child's nurse, a stout matron of something more than forty years. She was a calmly capable woman who managed her charge with a combination of ruthless efficiency and dollops of real affection. I had taken the precaution of purchasing leather leads to attach to the infant to prevent it from getting loose, but Madame Laborde assured me she was entirely capable of running it to ground should it escape.
Escape seemed the last thing on its mind as it wound its chubby fist around Stoker's index finger. As usual, the digit in question was stained with ink and smelt of honey and tobacco thanks to Stoker's inveterate habits. We had been in the child's company for only a few hours, but it had already ascertained that Stoker's pockets were a veritable hoard of sweets. It put out an imperious hand and Stoker shook his head. "You have had two already and you must eat your luncheon first."
The small person, I relate without exaggeration, narrowed its eyes and drew in a slow, deep breath. Then it opened its little maw and bellowed like a tiny bull. Hastily, Stoker thrust a hand into his pocket, rootling about until he extracted a paper twist of honey drops. He plopped one into the child's mouth just as it prepared to roar again. Instantly, the rosebud lips clamped shut and curved into a smile. It emitted another coo and the nurse sighed.
"Monsieur," she said evenly, "you must not spoil the child. He is headstrong enough without being indulged." She related this in French, as her English was poor, and Stoker shrugged, pantomiming that he did not understand the language. This was a patent falsehood. I had discovered him on numerous occasions reading saucy French novels in the original tongue. He claimed it made them more romantique.
I smiled at the nurse. "Madame," I told her in her native language, "you must excuse Monsieur. He lacks your fine Gallic common sense. He is half-Irish and they are a sentimental race."
Stoker opened his mouth and snapped it shut again without speaking. Officially, he was the third son of the late Viscount Templeton-Vane. Unofficially, he was the result of a passionate liaison between the viscountess and the portraitist who had come from Galway to paint her in oils. Stoker did not generally enjoy discussing his parentage, but he could not now object unless he admitted to understanding French, and it was a situation I decided to exploit to the fullest.
"He is the same with his dogs," I went on. "He lets them sleep in his bed and he feeds them from his own plate."
She shuddered. The French, I have observed, are devoted to their pets, but even they have limits. With a great deal of concentration, the infant took the sweet from its mouth and held it up to the light in one chubby fist, like a jeweler studying the facets of a rare gem. Then it popped the treasure back onto its tongue and began to pat Stoker's cheeks with its filthy hands. Suddenly, a noxious aroma filled the compartment. The cherub was sitting with a beatific expression on its face, as if it were not the author of the atrocity, but I knew better. I opened the window and gave the nurse a pointed look.
Madame Laborde hoisted herself to her feet and put out her hands for her charge.
"Avec moi, mon trésor, s'il vous plait," she said briskly. She rattled off something about attending to the child's condition and took her leave with the creature. Stoker unearthed one of his enormous scarlet pocket handkerchiefs and began to scrub at the sticky marks on his chin.
"You are a natural with children," I said mildly. "I did not realize you had much experience with them."
"Oh yes. In the traveling show." Stoker had run away from his aristocratic home at the age of twelve and attached himself to a sort of circus, working his way up from amateur conjurer to knife thrower and prizefighter. "Violet, the Human Sow," he told me with a fond smile of reminiscence. "She was a lovely woman. Gave birth every year, usually to twins or triplets. The proprietor made her wear a pink singlet and a velvet snout to cuddle a few infant pigs while the rest of us carried her actual babies about."
"That is appalling," I said, preparing to launch into a righteous tirade about reducing women to their breeding capabilities, but Stoker forestalled me.
"Not as appalling as that smell," he replied, pinching his nose.
"Blame your small and unhygienic friend," I instructed.
He shook his head. "No, that odor was blown away with the fresh air," he said, nodding towards the open window. "The stench that remains is courtesy of your traveling companion." He fixed an eye upon the enormous item sitting next to me. It was a wheel of cheese, just short of an hundredweight, its rind washed in the sweet wine of the Alpenwald, a Mitteleuropean country that had proven the setting for the conclusion of our last adventure. We had performed a service for the princess of that country at great peril to our own lives and limbs, and in return, the lady had invited us to her wedding. It had been a bittersweet time-the princess, poor soul, had married for the security of her throne rather than the dictates of her heart-but we had enjoyed the many courtesies extended to us. We had been away more than a fortnight and had fallen woefully behind in our work for the Earl of Rosemorran. We had been engaged at his lordship's Marylebone estate to catalog the collection amassed by his ancestors in preparation for the creation of a museum designed to educate and entertain the masses. Housed in the Belvedere, a sort of freestanding ballroom of enormous proportions on his lordship's property, the collection was as varied as it was vast. Egyptian mummies jostled medieval suits of armor while caryatids looked down their aristocratic noses at the confusion. The bulk of the collection was devoted to natural history, animals stuffed and mounted from the furthest reaches of the globe and most in a state of moldering decay. The restoration of such mounts was Stoker's speciality, whilst mine was the preservation of the butterflies and moths. A lepidopterist by trade, accustomed to voyaging the world in search of specimens to sell, I had taken the position with the earl on the understanding that it would entail a certain amount of travel.
Instead, I found myself most days tucked into some cobwebby corner of the Belvedere, plucking out desiccated butterflies and inking labels. It was not entirely the earl's fault. He had vastly underestimated the time required to make the collection fit for exhibition, and my own activities had frequently interrupted the work. Stoker and I had developed the habit of murder-the solving of, I hasten to add. Not the commission of, although the earl's numerous and exuberant children might have tempted me to try. Their mother long dead, the children ran wild despite the best efforts of the earl and his sister, Lady Cordelia. The lady and I had become fast friends regardless of the differences in rank and experience, and I had been deeply honored that she had chosen me as her companion when she sojourned half a year in Madeira. I had anticipated long days spent with my butterfly net, pursuing the enchanting black and white spotted Hypolimnas misippus, but instead I found myself trotting out on endless errands, fetching remedies for morning sickness and swollen feet as the reason for Lady C's abrupt withdrawal from public life made itself apparent.
I held her hand through the worst of it, but there are scenes indelibly printed upon my memory, scenes of such barnyard specificity that no childless woman should be forced to witness them. But Lady C had delighted in her bovine contentment, so much that she altered her plans to have the babe adopted out. Instead, she arranged for a temporary situation until the child was fully weaned and could travel safely in the company of the French nurse she had engaged to care for it. The infant had been in Paris for some weeks, and Lady C wrote to me in the Alpenwald, requesting that I retrieve it for her, much as one would ask a friend to collect a piece of left luggage from a train station. She cleverly reasoned that, as the child had come from Paris, no one would connect it with her journey to Madeira. Presented as a French foundling, it could be "adopted" by her and raised as her own child, although without benefit of her name. The situation was not ideal, but it was far better than any alternative. I had little use for society and its various hypocrisies, but Lady C was deeply conscious of her brother's honor and the fact that her beloved nieces and nephews would be tarred with the same brush used to blacken her name should the truth come out.
And so, Stoker and I had stopped in Paris for a few days to enjoy the spring sunshine, pay a lengthy visit to Deyrolle-the taxidermical emporium where Stoker wandered in a state of considerable rapture-marvel at the hypnotic ugliness of the newly constructed tower by Monsieur Eiffel, and collect the child. It came with an abundance of things, rubber baths and traveling cots and tiny chairs and far more clothes than I owned. (I gathered from a conversation with Madame Laborde that Lady C had been lavish in sending presents.) But all the infant's impedimenta could not rival my own souvenir of the Alpenwald-the cheese. I had purchased it as a gift for the earl in recognition of his many kindnesses and inexhaustible patience with our detectival endeavors. I could never be persuaded from the course of justice, and as a result Stoker and I were forever haring off on some adventure or other. If we were not chasing a resurrected Egyptian god down a sewer or ballooning past Big Ben, we were being variously shot at, stabbed, abducted, or drowned. A nice wheel of cheese seemed a small price to pay for the earl overlooking our frequent absences.
Unfortunately, I had underestimated the most notable of the Alpenwalder cheese's qualities. It was renowned amongst gourmets for its aroma, earthy, with the slightest suggestion of goat. In short, it stank. And the longer one carried it about, through overheated train compartments and warm spring sunshine, the more pungent it became.
By the time we reached Calais, the odor of the cheese had taken on a sort of personality, a fifth traveler in our merry band, ensuring that wherever we went, porters ignored us and crowds parted. Stoker had been forced to carry it himself, his clothing now permanently imbued with the stink of it. He eyed me reproachfully, but I pretended not to notice.
We arrived back in London on a gloomy morning. A chill fog rolled off the river Thames, blanketing the city and muffling traffic. The odiferous cheese announced our presence, and before a hapless porter could make his escape, I cornered him and forced him to help us shift our baggage to the carriage Lady C had sent. We clip-clopped through streets shrouded in mist, and by the time we arrived at Bishop's Folly, the estate in Marylebone, we were damp and cold to the bone. Usually our comings and goings were of little note, but this time the entire Beauclerk family turned out to greet us. Lady C took charge of her child and the earl of his cheese, and the children of the quantity of Swiss chocolate Stoker had purchased for them.
Our bags were sent to our lodgings, two of the follies built by previous earls to cluster picturesquely around a pond. Stoker's was a pagoda while I had chosen to lodge in a Gothic structure reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle, lavish with pointed arches and stained glass. But at his lordship's urging, we made straight for the Belvedere itself, our place of work and refreshment.
"I have a new acquisition and it has only just arrived," Lord Rosemorran announced, rubbing his hands together. Stoker flinched and I gave the earl a look of frank alarm. His enthusiasm was matched only by his fortune, and both were often in service of things only an eccentric nobleman could love. As soon as word of his intended museum spread, his aristocratic friends had taken the opportunity to clear out their own attics and country houses, sending along cartfuls of appalling things. Sorting through the detritus of some of England's finest families would have been enough to turn my hair white had I not been made of stern stuff, so I had, tactfully but firmly, insisted that his lordship promise to discuss future additions to the collection with us, his curators.
Catching sight of my expression, he hurried to explain. "Naturally, I would have conferred with the two of you, but you were in the Alpenwald, and I had to act quickly, you see. Reggie Anstruther offered me a good deal, but only if I agreed to the whole lot and only if I took delivery immediately."
Stoker's sigh was profound, but his lordship's excitement was undiminished. He threw open the door of the Belvedere and stopped short. Packed almost to the entrance itself was a stack of crates, row after row, and enormous rolls of fabric, painted canvas that had been furled like sails.
"What, precisely, are we looking at?" Stoker asked politely.