Read A Christmas Homecoming Online
Authors: Anne Perry
Alice had done a good job of cutting the story to exclude these while still keeping the story intact, but there were many awkward transitions that needed quite a lot of work.
The weather became worse, the wind rising so that
the snow drifted, piling up into banks and leaving the lee side almost bare. Trees leaned dangerously, cracking under the weight. Some lighter branches broke.
Joshua barely noticed, but Caroline, staring out of the windows at the leaden sky late in the afternoon, realized that there was a great likelihood of them being snowed in, perhaps for several days. Though they had intended to be there until well after Christmas, she still found the notion curiously imprisoning.
It was almost evening and already dark when the doorbell rang. It was so startling, considering the weather, that Caroline stopped where she was at the bottom of the stairs, watching as the footman appeared to answer it. He pulled the door wide open, peering forward a little as if he expected to see no one on the step.
He was mistaken, and Caroline heard his gasp from twenty feet away. She, too, stared at the man who stood silhouetted against the snow-whirled darkness. He was of at least average height, his hair smooth and black, and the shoulders of his cloak were covered in pale, glistening snow. The lamplight from inside made his cheeks hollow, his eyes under the dark brows so black as to seem without pupils.
“Good evening,” he said softly, but his voice carried with startling clarity, his diction perfect. “I apologize for disturbing you on such a night, but circumstances have forced me to seek your help. My name is Anton Ballin, and my carriage has broken down in a drift some way from here. I have left my coachman at the wheelwright’s, but I must ask for shelter for myself.”
The footman had no civilized alternative but to ask the man in.
“Please step inside, Mr. Ballin. Give me your cloak, sir, and warm yourself by the fire. I shall inform my master of your situation.”
“You are most kind.” Ballin came inside, as requested. As he crossed the light it was possible to see that he was carrying a small case, such as one might have for a single night’s stay somewhere. He looked at Caroline.
“Madame,” he inclined his head. He was striking in appearance. He would have been handsome were his cheekbones not a little too prominent and his skin unnaturally pale. “I regret imposing on your hospitality,” he added with a very slight shrug. “The weather is far worse than I had anticipated.”
She realized that he spoke with a very faint accent. It was more a precision of diction than any alteration of vowels.
She came forward. “I am Caroline Fielding, another guest, but I am sure Mrs. Netheridge will make you welcome for as long as this weather lasts.” She offered her hand.
He took it gently. His hands were gloved, and freezing. He raised hers to his lips in the gesture of a kiss, then let it fall. He regarded her curiously. Even inside, under the lights of the hall, his eyes were as black as they had seemed in the shadows.
“Not another orphan of the storm, I hope?” he asked curiously.
“Not at all, Mr. Ballin. My husband and I are here as Mr. Netheridge’s guests, with a very small company of actors, who are to perform a play for such friends and neighbors as are able to come, on Boxing Day.”
“Fielding,” he rolled the name on his tongue. “Mr. Joshua Fielding?”
She felt a distinct flush of pleasure, even of pride. “Yes. Do you know him?”
“Of course.” He smiled. He had excellent teeth, even and very white. They gave his face a power she had not appreciated before because it was so dominated by his eyes. “A fine actor,” he went on. “He has the ability to convey many moods, many types of people, and carry you with him while doing so. It is a rare gift. What are you to perform for these fortunate guests of Mr. Netheridge’s?”
Now she was not so certain that telling him about the play had been a good idea, although if he were to be islanded here by the storm, as seemed inevitable, then he would know soon enough. Still, she felt self-conscious in answering.
“An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel
,” she replied, wishing she could have said it was a few scenes from Shakespeare, or even a reading from Mr. Dickens’s works.
“Really?” His voice held no incredulity, and certainly no suggestion of disappointment. “I did not know such a thing had been written. That interests me greatly.”
She felt even more embarrassed, but there was no way to avoid answering him.
“Miss Netheridge has made an adaptation,” she said with as little hesitation as she could. “The work is not complete yet, but we are progressing quite well.” That was a massive overstatement. She knew that Joshua’s afternoon had been frustrating. He had said he felt even less hopeful now than he had when he made his promises to Charles Netheridge, and by implication to Alice, the evening before.
She was saved from Ballin’s reply by the appearance of Netheridge himself. He introduced himself to Ballin and made him welcome, offering him hospitality for as long as he should need it. This included a change of clothes from those he was wearing, which were obviously soaked through. Small pools of water glistened at Ballin’s feet in the light from the chandeliers.
Caroline excused herself and went to tell Joshua of Ballin’s arrival, and that he knew of Joshua and admired him.
allin joined them for dinner that night. His clothes had been dried and ironed by Netheridge’s valet, and, if
he was exhausted by his carriage ordeal, or his long walk in the snow, he showed no sign of it at all.
“I hope you were not hurt, Mr. Ballin?” Eliza inquired with concern.
“Not at all,” Ballin answered gravely, and yet a certain amusement flickered in his eyes. “Except my dignity, perhaps. To be riding in comfort, if also in anxiety, at one moment, and then scrambling to arise out of a drift of snow the next, makes one appear more than a little ridiculous. However, there was no one to observe me, except my coachman, and he was in no better circumstances than I.”
“Where is he?” Lydia asked, her soup spoon arrested halfway to her mouth.
“In the servants’ quarters, I imagine,” Mercy answered her. “Did you expect to see him in the dining room?”
Ballin looked at Mercy with interest, his eyes searching her delicate, pretty face as if trying to observe something deeper. “Actually, he is staying at the wheelwright’s cottage, Mrs. Hobbs,” he answered softly. “He bruised his legs rather badly, and I fear this walk would have been distressing for him.”
“Where were you hoping to go?” James asked. However, there was no interest in his face; it was clear that he inquired only to be polite.
“To stay with friends on the farther side of Whitby,” Ballin replied. “I regret that it will be some time before that is possible, judging from the weather. No doubt they will have deduced that I was obliged to seek hospitality elsewhere, and they will not be overly anxious.”
“Sorry.” Netheridge shook his head. “Can’t get a message to anyone through this storm. The snow is several feet deep in some places on the road. And if this wind gets worse, we could have trees down.”
Even as he spoke the howling outside increased. Mercy shivered, glancing toward the rich red curtains drawn across the windows.
“ ‘Listen to them, the children of the night’,” Vincent quoted from the book, a line Alice had kept in the play.
Mercy gave another, even more convulsive shiver.
“You’re not onstage now!” Lydia said sharply. “There are no bats or wolves out there. This is Yorkshire.”
“Dracula came to Yorkshire,” Mercy retorted instantly. “This is exactly where it all happened! Didn’t you read the book, for heaven’s sake?”
“I read it,” Lydia said with a sigh. “I don’t believe it. It’s my job to believe it onstage, not at the dinner table.”
“It’s only the wind,” James said to no one in particular. “The whole thing is an excellent horror story, but there’s nothing real to be frightened of.”
“Bravo,” Vincent observed sarcastically. “That’s perfectly in character. Harker didn’t believe in vampires until Dracula had already taken Lucy and turned her into one.”
Alice looked from one to the other of them. Her eyes were bright, and there was a slight flush on her cheeks, although it was impossible to tell if it was embarrassment or excitement. Perhaps a little of each.
Douglas Paterson regarded Alice’s face with a distress that was close to exasperation. “Really—,” he began.
Alice cut him off, looking toward Ballin. “Can we make you believe in vampires, just for a season?” she asked him.
“Alice!” Netheridge protested.
Ballin held up his long-fingered, powerful hand, moving with uncommon grace. “Please! It is a game we must all play, the suspension of disbelief, just for a
while. Surely Christmas is the season in which to believe in miracles? The Son of God came to earth as a little child, helpless and dependent, just as we all are, even when we least think so. Does it not follow that the creatures of evil must also be knocking at the door, waiting for someone to allow them in?”
Mercy gave a little gasp.
Lydia rolled her eyes and glanced momentarily to Douglas before turning away again.
Alice was looking at Ballin intently, her expression keen with interest. “I’ve never heard anyone say something like that before,” she said.
“Of course you haven’t,” Douglas responded. “It’s nonsense.”
“No, it isn’t!” Caroline said quickly. “Haven’t you seen Holman Hunt’s painting of Christ,
The Light of the World?
He is standing at the door, but the handle is on the inside. If we do not open it ourselves, then he cannot come in, either. So maybe the final choice is always ours?”
“What about Halloween?” Mercy asked. “Aren’t demons supposed to be abroad then? Can’t they come in?”
“Fairy stories,” Netheridge said briskly. “Anyway, demons are not the same thing as vampires. The Church might have a reasonable argument for the devil, but vampires are strictly Bram Stoker’s imagination. Damned good story, but that’s all.”
“If you will forgive me saying so, Mr. Netheridge, vampires are a lot older than Mr. Stoker, vivid as his imagination is,” Ballin said apologetically. “And they are not demons, which are essentially inhuman. Vampires are the ‘undead,’ who were once as human and mortal as you or I, but who have lost the blessings of death and the resurrection to eternal life. They are damned, in the sense that they can never move on.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” Douglas demanded hotly. “You are speaking as if they were something more than the creation of some opportunistic writer with a desire to make a name and a fortune for himself by trading on the unhealthy fears of a part of society who have time on their hands, and overheated imaginations.”
Netheridge gave him a heavily disapproving look. “Nonsense,” he said tartly. “You are making far too much of it, Douglas. A little fear sharpens our appreciation
for the very real safety and comfort that we have. Don’t spoil the entertainment by sounding so self-righteous.”
Douglas blushed deep red, but said nothing at all.
Eliza looked uncomfortable.
Joshua drew in his breath, but found that he had nothing to say, either.
It was Ballin who spoke. “You give Mr. Stoker too much credit, and too much blame, Mr. Paterson. His work is very fine. He has created a story that will no doubt entertain readers for decades to come, but he is far from the first to use the ancient figure of the vampire as a literary device. But perhaps Stoker’s novel will be even more successful than John Polidori’s
, published eighty years ago. Polidori’s vampire, Lord Ruthven, was actually based upon his illustrious patient, Lord Byron.”
“I think we very safely presume there is no truth in that,” Joshua put in.
Ballin smiled at him. “I agree, unequivocally. However, the history of the vampire, real or imagined, goes back even beyond the ancient Greek to the Hebrew, and the blood-drinking Lilith. The pedigree is not perhaps
respectable, but it is certainly rooted in mankind’s knowledge of good and evil, and what may become of a human soul when darkness is chosen over light.”