Bavaria, September 1889
You must not go into the forest at night," the innkeeper warned, his voice trembling with fear. "Something dangerous walks there in the darkness."
He carried on in this vein for some time as I applied myself to a stein of Weissbier and a plate of crisp, excellent sausages. My friend and travelling companion, the Viscount Templeton-Vane, listened politely as the fellow grew more vehement.
"The creature that walks by night, it is part wolf, part man. It has but one eye, the other a gaping hole of deepest black. It keeps to the shadows, and if you dare to come near, it snarls like a bear," he went on, his eyes round in his chubby, shiny face. He was a character straight from a storybook, plump and bearded, an imp of a fellow, with lines of good humour etched upon his face. But there was no mirth to be found upon his visage as he told his tale, only fear, brightening his eyes and causing his mouth to tremble ever so slightly.
Behind him, a lurking barmaid whose ample charms were scarcely contained by the lacing of her dirndl threw her apron over her head and fled through the door to the kitchens.
The viscount-Tiberius to his friends-quirked up one expressive brow. "My good man, calm yourself. Surely this is some piece of local lore meant to frighten the feeble. We English are made of sterner stuff."
"But it is true," the fellow insisted, colour pinkening the cheeks above the white fringe of his beard. He glanced around and lowered his voice. "I have seen it, a hulking shadow, moving in the silence of the firs. And when I stepped in its direction, it reared back and it growled with the fiendish fury of a hound of Hell."
Tiberius, usually a man of cool logic, looked startled. "Growled, you say?"
"Like a wolf," the man confirmed.
I sighed. It was time to put an end to this. "My good man," I said politely to the innkeeper, "whilst I must concede that your use of alliteration is impressive, I think we can dismiss the notion of a hybrid monster roaming these mountains."
He gave me a look of profound injury and slunk away, muttering.
Tiberius met my gaze. "Can we? I realise the local folk are a superstitious lot, but how exactly would you explain the existence of such a creature?"
I ticked off the qualities as I said them. "A tall, unsociable creature that keeps to the shadows, shuns the society of respectable people, and growls its displeasure? Tell me, who does that seem to describe?"
Tiberius' mouth went slack, then curved into a smile. "You mean-"
"Yes, Tiberius. I think we have, at long last, found your brother."
The Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane-Stoker, familiarly-had not been lost so much as slightly misplaced. For some months Stoker and I had enjoyed an intimate relationship that had proven thoroughly fulfilling, indeed enrapturing, in all the particulars. We were work colleagues, engaged in the endlessly fascinating task of preparing museum exhibits for our employer, Lord Rosemorran. We were also neighbours, each of us inhabiting a small folly on his lordship’s Marylebone estate.
And we were occasional partners in detection, as falling over corpses had become something of a habit. In short, our lives were so fully entwined it was difficult to say where one left off and the other began. We enjoyed it all-from the scientific work to the investigation of crime, to the exuberant physicality of our more private endeavours. (Stoker is singularly suited to the amatory arts through a combination of bodily charms, robust stamina, and an enchanting thoroughness that might have startled a less experienced or enthusiastic partner than I.)
But following a painful interlude, Stoker had taken himself off to nurse his wounded feelings. When last he and I had been together, there had been a complication regarding my marital status. Not a complication so much as a husband-one I had believed dead and whose resurrection was most unwelcome. The fact that we had nearly died as a result of Harry's dramatic appearance into our lives had not endeared him to Stoker, and he had taken his leave of England whilst still believing me bound forever to a man with criminous tendencies. As his parting words had been a directive to grant him time and privacy to smooth his ruffled feathers, I had naturally concurred. By the next morning he was gone, leaving only a hastily scribbled line to explain he was off to Germany in pursuit of a trophy-as a natural historian, his employment entailed procuring and improving a vast array of specimens-but no invitation to join him ensued.
At almost precisely the same moment, a letter had arrived from Tiberius urging me to come to Italy, where he had persuaded his hostess, an aging papal marquise, to part with a prized collection of rare birdwing butterflies. I am, first and foremost, a lepidopterist. I did not hesitate to pack my carpetbag and board the first train out of London. Through the end of the spring and the whole of that summer I accompanied Tiberius as he made his way through Italy, sending boxes of butterflies back to Lord Rosemorran's burgeoning museum.
From Stoker, I had not a single line, although Lord Rosemorran frequently alluded to Stoker's peregrinations through the Black Forest in his own letters. I thus had a vague idea of where Stoker was, and I was not at all distressed by our lack of communication. I knew two things: the depth of our feelings for one another and the fact that absence makes the heart as well as the libido grow stronger. I had little doubt that Stoker missed me-all of me.
No, the fact that he had taken his leave so abruptly and with no effort at a proper good-bye did not distress me in the slightest. And while another woman might have grown increasingly irritated that the post forwarded from England brought not the merest scrap of a postcard, to say nothing of a proper letter, I naturally devoted myself entirely to the study of lepidoptery. I passed my days in hunting specimens that flittered and fluttered from the Dolomites to the Sicilian hills and back again. I grew leaner and more firmly muscled from scrambling over peaks and pastures. I set out at daybreak each morning from our lodgings, when the night's dew still bespangled the grasses at my feet. I did not return until the languid golden sun dropped beyond the horizon, leaving a few last gentle rays to show me the way back. I never used my net; its presence was merely a habit from my previous expeditions. Instead I followed the butterflies, making careful study of their mazy meanderings, their behaviours and habitats.
And when I returned to the solitude of my room, I spent long hours writing up my findings both for my private notes and for publication in the Aurelian journals. Invariably, I dropped into bed exhausted by my exertions, only to rise at dawn and repeat the process. Not for me the languid evening passed in mournful contemplation of the distance-both literal and figurative-between myself and the person I considered to be my twinned soul. I would not permit myself to waste away in pining and regret. I had the celibate consolations of science, and I made full advantage of them.
If I am to be strictly honest within these pages-and I have sworn to be so-then I will admit to the occasional wakeful night or interminable afternoon when I found my thoughts inhabited by his familiar form and face. When these moods came upon me, so strong was my longing for him, it required all of my discipline to refrain from flinging my things into a bag and dashing to him. The only remedy was another strenuous day spent in pursuit of my studies, driving myself physically harder than ever before even as I enumerated his flaws. I catalogued them as I strode the Italian hills, whipping up my annoyance.
"What sort of man just leaves? And without so much as a proper kiss good-bye," I muttered to the nearest rock in a fit of particular frustration on the isle of Capri. "What kind of fellow thinks it is acceptable simply to disappear for months on end and send no assurances of his well-being? Not a telegram, not a semaphore flag, not so much as a hint of a postcard with his current address? An ass," I told the rock.
But even as I said the words, I knew Stoker was not entirely to blame. He had left still believing I was the wife of another man. Only a handful of hours had passed between Stoker's departure and my learning the truth of my marital status-that I was not, and never had been, legally married.
Why then did I leap at Tiberius' invitation instead of rushing after Stoker to stop him before he left England?
It was some months before I could face the answer: I was a coward. When I learnt of Stoker's resolve to leave, to take time for himself to consider our attachment, my initial reaction, the longing of my heart, had been to go to him. And therein lay my terror. I, who had laboured and loved independent of real connection for so long, was entirely and besottedly enraptured with this man. When I most had need of a confidant, I had not turned to him out of fear of dependency, and when he left, the desire to run to him had kindled that fear once more.
So I drove it out with hard physical exercise, with time and distance, hoping I could blunt the sharp edge of my resistance to committing myself fully to Stoker. My demeanour, ordinarily so tranquil as to be remarkable, was frequently waspish as I came back, always, to the fact that even if I wanted to go to him, he had insisted upon the gift of time. If time was what he wanted, he should have all the time in the world, I decided. In fact, I would grow weary and withered and ancient before I would stir a single step towards him. If I suffered from the loss of his company, then he should suffer as well, I decided. I had my dignity, after all.
I do not know how long I might have maintained my lofty determination to wait for him to make the first move. I might still be wandering the Lombard hills, butterfly net in hand, had Tiberius not appeared one morning at breakfast, bags packed and travel arranged. Our hotel, a converted castello, was very fine and comfortable but with few of the comforts so beloved of the English traveller. The beds were hard, the pillows nonexistent, and the mosquitoes particularly aggressive. Worst of all possible woes, the tea was unspeakable and I had almost resigned myself to drinking coffee. I was peering into the murky depths of the teapot when Tiberius took the chair across from me.
"I wish to find Stoker," he said flatly. "Do you know where one might run him to ground?"
I put aside the crime that passed for tea in those parts and gave him a level look. "Somewhere in Bavaria, if Lord Rosemorran's letters are accurate. But his lordship can be vague about such things, and this is, after all, Stoker of whom we are speaking, a man inclined to follow his most wayward impulses. He might be in Batavia. Or Bolivia. Or Bechuana." He did not respond to my little witticism and I gave him a close look. Tiberius was, like all the Templeton-Vane men, a singularly handsome fellow. But there were plummy shadows under his eyes, and a line, slim but severe, etched its way across his brow. "Tiberius, why do you want to find Stoker?"
He hesitated, itself cause for alarm, and then said three words which chilled me to my marrow.
"I need him."
The fact that Tiberius Templeton-Vane, ninth viscount of the same, expressed any emotion as lowering as need of another person was mildly terrifying. He was the most self-possessed man I had ever met, his character having long since been shaped by the ineffable knowledge that he was the firstborn son of an aristocrat, heir to a fortune, a title, and an estate. His privilege was as much a part of him as his elegant hands or his superb sense of dress. Tiberius, so long as I had known him, needed no one and nothing-least of all his scapegrace brother. Stoker had, almost since the cradle, been considered the cuckoo in the nest. (The fact that their mother’s dalliance with an Irish painter was actually responsible for Stoker’s paternity only augmented this division.) Stoker had rebelled against the family’s strictures, taking himself off for the first time when he was twelve years of age. His putative father, the eighth viscount, had him apprehended and returned to Cherboys, the family estate in Devon, but Stoker simply ran away again. And again. Every time he was hauled back to Cherboys, he bided his time and then left. In due course, the viscount stopped retrieving him and Stoker fell in with a travelling circus before studying medicine in Edinburgh and later becoming a surgeon’s mate in Her Majesty’s Navy.
Through his perambulations, he had lost the thread of connection with his family, and by the time I had met him, some three years previous to these events, there was almost no communication between Stoker and his three brothers, their father having died the year before I came into his life. He had been independent for so long that it had almost become a matter of pride for him that he did not rely upon the Templeton-Vane name or its influence to open doors for him. He lived by his own talents, and this was met by his brothers sometimes with good-natured bafflement and sometimes with resentful envy. Their own lives had been laid out for them by the late Lord Templeton-Vane, and none of the three had the courage or will to deviate from the appointed path. Tiberius, as the eldest, had succeeded to the title. The second, Sir Rupert, had been granted a baronetcy for his services to the Crown as a barrister who dabbled in secret diplomacy. The youngest, Merryweather-shoved into the Church, possibly against his will-had been granted the living of the parish of Dearsley, the village nearest to Cherboys. The brothers were settled, with varying degrees of satisfaction, in their roles.
And yet. Now and then, so fleeting I could almost believe it my own fancy, each of them had looked at Stoker with something akin to jealousy. I was not surprised. It was the same expression frequently aimed in my direction, usually by women with too many children and too much time spent embroidering tea cloths. To make one's own money, to direct one's own destiny, these were heady gifts indeed.
Copyright © 2023 by Deanna Raybourn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.