Authors: Barbara Hambly
For George, with a prayer in the shadow of the Aya Sofia
The house was an old one, inconspicuous for its size. Curiously so, thought Lydia Asher, when she stood at last on the front steps, craning her neck to look up at five stories of shut-faced dark facade. More curious still, given the obvious age of the place, was the plain half timbering discernible under centuries of discoloration and soot, the bull’s eye glass of the unshuttered windows, the depth to which the centers of the stone steps had been worn.
shivered and pulled closer about her the coat she’d borrowed from her cook—even the plainest from her own collection would have been hopelessly fashionable for these narrow, nameless courts and alleys that clustered behind the waterfront between Blackfriars
Bridge and Southwark. He can’t hurt me, she thought, and brought up her hand to her throat. Under the high neck of her plain wool waist she could feel the thick links of half a dozen silver chains against her skin.
It had taken her nearly an hour to find the court, which by some trick of chance had been left off all four modern maps of this part of London. The whole yard was adrift in fog the color of ashes, and at this hour—Lydia heard three o’clock strike in the black steeple of the crumbling pre-Wren church that backed the old house—even the little remaining light was bleeding away. She had passed the house three times before truly seeing it, and sensed that had the air been clear, it would somehow still have been difficult to look at the place. She had the absurd impression that by night, lanterns or no lanterns, streetlamps or no street lamps, it would not be visible at all.
There was a smell about it, too, distinct and terrifying, but impossible to place.
She stood for a long time at the foot of its steps.
He can’t hurt me
, she told herself again, and wondered if that were true.
Her heart was beating hard, and she noted clinically the cold in her extremities, in spite of fur lined leather gloves and two pairs of silk stockings under her dainty, high heeled boots. Stouter shoes would have somewhat alleviated the situation, always supposing stout shoes existed that did not make their wearer look like a washerwoman—if they did, Lydia had never seen them—but the panicky scald of adrenaline in her bloodstream informed her that the cold she felt was probably shock.
It was one thing to speculate about the physiology of the house’s owner in the safety of her own study at Oxford, or with James close by and armed.
It was evidently quite another to go up and knock on Don Simon Ysidro’s front door.
Muffled by the fog, she heard the tock of hooves, the jingle of harness from Upper Thames Street, and the groaning hoot of the motorbuses. Another hoot, deeper, came from some ship on the river. The click of her heels on the dirty steps was the strike of a hammer, and her petticoat’s rustle the rasp of a saw.
For all the house’s age, the lock on the door was relatively new, a heavy American pin lock oddly masked behind what must have been the original lock plate of Elizabeth’s time. It yielded readily enough to the skeleton keys she’d found at the back of her husband’s handkerchief drawer. Her hands shook a little as she then operated the picklocks in the fashion he’d taught her, partly from the sheer fear of what she was doing, and partly because, law abiding and essentially orderly, she expected a member of the Metropolitan Police to appear behind her crying, ‘Ere, now, wotcher at?
Absurd on the face of it, she thought. It was patently obvious that no representative of the law had set foot in this square in years.
She pushed her thick lensed spectacles more firmly up onto the bridge of her nose—Not only breakin‘ the law, roared the imaginary policeman, but ugly and four-eyed to boot!—slipped the picklocks and skeleton keys back into her handbag, and stepped through the door.
It wouldn’t be full dark until five. She was perfectly safe.
The hall itself was much darker than she had expected, with the wide oak doors on either side closed. Trimmed with a carved balustrade, generous steps ascended carpetless to blindness above. The passage beside them to the rear of the house was an open grave.
There was, of course, no lamp.
Mildly berating herself for not having foreseen that contingency—of course there wouldn’t be a lamp!—Lydia pushed open one of the side doors to admit a rinsed and cindery light. It showed her a key on the hall table, and turning, she closed the front door. For a time she stood undecided, debating whether to lock herself in and observing the deleterious effects of massive amounts of adrenaline on her ability to concentrate…
How would I go about charting degree of panic with inability to make a decision? The workhouse wouldn’t really let me put my subjects into life threatening situations.
In the end she turned the key but left it in the lock, and stepped cautiously through the door she had opened, into what had probably been a dining room but was as large as the ballroom of her aunt’s house in Mayfair. It was lined floor to ceiling with books: goods boxes had been stacked on top of the original ten-foot bookshelves, and planks stretched over windows and doors so that not one square foot of the original paneling showed and the tops of the highest ranks brushed the coffered ceiling. Yellow backed adventure novels by Conan Doyle and Clifford Ashdown shouldered worn calf saints’ lives, antiquated chemistry texts, Carlyle, Gibbon, de Sade, Balzac, cheap modern reprints of Aeschylus and Plato, Galsworthy, Wilde, Shaw. In front of the bone clean fireplace, a massive oak chest, strapped with leather and the only furniture in the room, held a cheap American oil lamp of clear glass and steel, the trimmed wick in about half a reservoir of oil. Lydia produced a match from her pocket, lit the lamp, and by its uncertain light read the titles of the several new volumes, half unwrapped from their parcel paper, which lay beside it.
A French mathematics text. A German physics book by a man named Einstein. The Wind in the Willows.
How much time left?
With a certain amount of difficulty Lydia produced from beneath her coat a curious device—a simple brass bug sprayer of the pump variety, its nozzle carefully capped with a pinch of sticking plaster—and a shoulder sling manufactured from a couple of scarves in last year’s colors. She removed the cap, reslung the sprayer on the outside of her coat and, picking up the lamp, moved off through the house.
The first-floor room contained more books. The rear chamber, book lined also, held furniture as well. A heavy table, strewn with mathematics texts, abaci, astrolabes, armillary spheres, a German Brunsviga tabulation machine, and what Lydia recognized dimly as an old set of ivory calculating bones. At the far end of the room loomed a machine the size of an upright piano, sinister with glass, metal, and ranks of what looked like clock faces, whose use Lydia could not begin to guess. Near it stood a blackwood cabinet desk, German and ruinously old, carved thick with gods and trees, among which peeped the tarnished brass locks to concealed recesses and drawers.
A wing chair of purple velvet, very worn and rubbed, stood before a fireplace whose blue and yellow tiles were smoked almost to obscurity, its arms covered with cat hair, an American newspaper lying on its seat. Movement caught her eye and made her gasp, but it was only her own reflection in a yellowed mirror, the glass nearly covered by a great shawl of eighteenth-century black point lace that hung over its divided pane.
set the lamp down and lifted the shawl aside. Thin and rather fragile looking, her reflection gazed back at her: flat-chested and schoolgirlish, she thought despairingly, despite her twenty-six years. And despite everything she could do with rice powder, kohl, and the tiny amount of rouge that were all a properly brought up lady could wear, her face was still all nose and spectacles. Four-eyes, they’d called her, all her childhood and adolescence—when it wasn’t skinnybones or bookworm—and if her life didn’t, quite literally, depend on how quickly she could see danger in this place, she’d never have worn her eyeglasses outside her rented Bloomsbury rooms.
Her life, and James’ as well.
She let the lace fall, touched again the silver around her neck and the fat, doubled and trebled links of it that circled her wrists under cuffs and gloves.
Why a mirror
? Something one wouldn’t expect to find here. Did that mean the stories were wrong?
She picked up the lamp again, hoping the information she’d learned on the subject was even partially correct. It was a disgrace, really, that over the years more scientific data had not been collected. She would definitely have to write an article for the Journal of Medical Pathology—or perhaps for one of James’ folkloric publications.
If she lived, she thought, and panic heated in her veins again. If she lived.
What if she were doing this wrong?
She found another floor of high-ceilinged rooms, plus attics, all of them filled with either books or journals. Her own experience with the proliferative propensities of back issues of Lancet and its competitors—British, European, and American—gave her a lively sense of sympathy, and an envious appreciation for so much shelf space almost, for the moment, eased her fear. Lancet went back to 1823, and she had little doubt the first issue could be found here somewhere. One small chamber upstairs contained clothing, expensive and relatively new.
From the first, all her instincts told her she must look down, not up, for what she sought.
The kitchen and scullery were on the ground floor, at the back of the house, down that caliginous throat of passageway. Stairs corkscrewed farther down. The scullery contained a modern icebox. Lydia opened it and found a cake of ice about two days old, a bottle of cream, and a small quantity of knacker’s meat done up in paper. Four or five dishes—including a Louis XV Sevres saucer—lay on the floor in a corner. For the first time, Lydia smiled.
Boothole, wine cellar, vegetable pantry belowstairs, and many smaller rooms, low-ceilinged and smelling of earth and great age. The lamp flung her shadow waveringly over cruck-work beams, discolored plaster, stonework that spoke of some older building on this site. As in searching for the house itself—which had fallen out of all mention in the Public Records Office after the Fire of 1666—Lydia passed three or four times through the room that contained the trap to the subcellar. It was only when, failing to see any such ingress as she knew must exist, she studied the composition of the walls themselves that she narrowed the possibilities to the little storeroom whose damp stone wall bore signs of having once supported a stairway.
Outside, the day must be slowly losing its grip on life. Trying to keep her hands from shaking, with cold now as well as fear, she pulled off her gloves and ran her fingers under the chair rail and around the heavy molding of the room’s two doors. Near the base of the door into the wine cellar she felt a lever click unwillingly under her fingers and saw, in the dirty brazen light, the wider gap between two panels.
There was a latch on the inside of the movable panel so it could be opened from below, and a worn ladder going down.
As Lydia had guessed, the low room beneath looked as if it had been the subcrypt of a church, either the one that backed the house—in a square named, oddly enough, Spaniard’s Court—or some forgotten predecessor. Barely visible in black paint on the ceiling groins were the words Salvum me fac, Deus, quoniam intraverunt aquae usque ad animam meam.
Lydia had not been raised a Catholic—her aunts considered even the inclusion of candles on the parish altar grounds for complaint to the bishop—but recognized, from her residency at St. Bartholomew’s, the words from the Mass for Deliverance from Death.
A granite sarcophagus filled the far end of the chamber like a somber altar, all but concealing a low, locked door. Lydia stood before it for some time, holding the lamp high and gauging the probable weight of the stone lid. Then she knelt and studied the floor.
A laborious investigation of the cracks in the gray stone floor showed her the trapdoor, an eye-straining business by the amber glow of the lamp; she gave up early trying to do the business tidily and without griming and wrinkling her skirt, and it was equally impossible to keep her corset bones from jabbing her ribs and the pump sprayer from knocking her repeatedly on the elbow. Another squinting, painful half hour revealed the trigger to the trapdoor’s catch behind the projecting stone frame of the chamber’s inner door.
As she had deduced, the sarcophagus had nothing to do with anything. It was simply too obvious.
The steps leading downward were shallow, so deeply worn in the centers that she had to press her shoulder to one wall and brace herself against the other to maintain her footing. She guessed it was well past dark outside, and beneath her growing fear—the panicky conviction that she was completely unqualified to deal with the encounter that lay ahead—she wondered precisely how dark was dark enough. She suppressed the urge to check her watch and make notes.
The lamplight could not penetrate the night below her, and from that darkness rose the smells of wet earth, cold stone, and rust. Interestingly, there was no smell of rats.
The light slithered wetly over a grille of metal bars. Lydia pressed herself to it, maneuvered the lamp through and held it up to illuminate what lay within. The bars were old, the lock on them new and expensive and beyond the capacity of either the skeleton key or the picklocks. The lamplight reached only partway into the catacomb beyond the bars, but far enough to show her wall niches, empty for the most part, or occupied with the suggestion of ghastly natures mortes: skulls, dust, and shreds of fallen hair.
On the right-hand wall the shadows all but hid a niche whose interior no amount of angling the lamp would reveal.
But hanging over the edge, like ivory against the dingy stone, was a man’s hand: long-fingered, thin, ringed with gold. Darkness hid the rest, and though the white hand itself looked as perfect as if painted by Rubens or Holbein, Lydia knew that its owner had been dead for a long time.