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Authors: Deanna Raybourn

The Dead Travel Fast

BOOK: The Dead Travel Fast
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The Dead Travel Fast

DEANNA RAYBOURN

The Dead Travel Fast

For my husband. For everything. For always.

I

As he spoke, he smiled, and the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered to the other…“
Denn die Todten reiten schnell
.” (“For the dead travel fast.”)

—Bram Stoker,
Dracula

It is with true love as it is with ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.

—François de la Rochefoucauld

II

All proper stories begin with the words
Once upon a time
…. But this is not a proper story—it is mine. You will not believe it. You will say such things are not possible. But you believed once, long ago. You believed in witches and goblins and things that walked abroad in the dark of the night. And you believed in happily ever after and that love can mend all. For children believe in impossible things. So read my tale with a child’s eyes and believe once more in the impossible….

Contents

Chapter 1                    

Chapter 2                    

Chapter 3                    

Chapter 4                    

Chapter 5                    

Chapter 6                    

Chapter 7                    

Chapter 8                    

Chapter 9                    

Chapter 10                    

Chapter 11                    

Chapter 12                    

Chapter 13                    

Chapter 14                    

Chapter 15                    

Chapter 16                    

Chapter 17                    

Chapter 18                    

Chapter 19                    

Chapter 20                    

Readers’ Guide Questions                    

Acknowledgments                    

1

Edinburgh, 1858

“I am afraid we must settle the problem of what to do with Theodora,” my brother-in-law said with a weary sigh. He looked past me to where my sister sat stitching placidly on a tiny gown. It had been worn four times already and wanted a bit of freshening.

Anna glanced up from her work to give me a fond look. “I rather think Theodora ought to have a say in that, William.”

To his credit, he coloured slightly. “Of course she must.” He sketched a tiny bow in my direction. “She is a woman grown, after all. But now that Professor Lestrange has been properly laid to rest, there is no one here to care for her. Something must be decided.”

At the mention of my grandfather, I turned back to the bookshelf whose contents I had been sorting. His library had been an extensive one, and, to my anguish, his debts demanded it be sold along with anything else of value in the house. Indeed, the house itself would have to be sold, although William had hopes that the pretty little property in Picardy Place would fetch enough to settle the debts and leave me a tiny sum for my keep. I wiped the books carefully with a cloth sprinkled with neat’s-foot oil and placed them aside, bidding farewell to old friends.

Just then the housekeeper, Mrs. Muldoon, bustled in. “The post, Miss Lestrange.”

I sorted through the letters swiftly, passing the business correspondence to William. I kept only three for myself, two formal notes of condolence and the last, an odd, old-fashioned-looking letter written on thick, heavy paper and embellished with such exotic stamps and weighty wax seals that I knew at once who must have sent it. I hesitated to open it, savouring the pleasure of anticipation.

William showed no such restraint. He dashed a paper knife through the others, casting a quick eye over the contents.

“More debts,” he said with a sigh. He reached for the ledger, entering the numbers with a careful hand. It was good of him to settle my grandfather’s affairs so diligently, but at the moment I wanted nothing more than to be rid of him with his ledgers and his close questions about how best to dispose of a spinster sister-in-law of twenty-three.

Catching my mood, Anna smiled at her husband. “I find I am a little unwell. Perhaps some of Mrs. Muldoon’s excellent ginger tea might help.”

To his credit, William sprang up, all thoughts of me forgotten. “Of course.” Naturally, neither of them alluded to the happy source of her sickness, and I wondered wickedly how happy the news had been. A fifth little mouth to feed on his modest living in a small parish. Anna for her part looked tired, her mouth drawn.

“Thank you,” I told her when he had gone. I thrust my duster into my pocket and took up the paper knife. It seemed an act of sacrilege to destroy the seal, but I was wildly curious as to the contents.

Anna continued to stitch. “You must not be too impatient with William,” she advised me as I began to read. “He does care for you, and he means well. He only wants to see you properly settled.”

I mumbled a reply as I skimmed the letter, phrases catching my eye.
My dearest friend, how I have missed you…at last he is coming to take up his inheritance…so much to be decided

Anna chattered on for a few moments, trying to convince me of her husband’s better qualities, I think. I scarce listened. Instead I began to read the letter a second time, more slowly, turning each word of the hasty scrawl over in my head.

“Deliverance,” I breathed, sinking onto a hassock as my eyes lingered upon the last sentence.
You must come to me
.

“Theodora, what is it? Your colour has risen. Is it distressing news?”

After a moment, I found my voice. “Quite the opposite. Do you remember my school friend, Cosmina?”

Anna furrowed her brow. “Was she the girl who stayed behind during holidays with you?”

I had forgot that. After Anna had met and promptly married William at sixteen, I had been bereft. She had left us for his living in Derbyshire, and our little household never entirely recovered from the loss. She was but two years my senior, and we had been orphaned together in childhood. We had been each other’s bulwark against the loneliness of growing up in an elderly scholar’s household, and I had felt the loss of her keenly. I had pined so deeply in fact, that my grandfather had feared for my health. Thinking it a cure, he sent me to a school for young ladies in Bavaria, and there I had met Cosmina. Like me, she did not make friends easily, and so we had clung to each other, both of us strangers in that land. We were serious, or so we thought ourselves, scorning the silliness of the other girls who talked only of beaux and debut balls. We had formed a fast friendship, forged stronger by the holidays spent at school when the other pupils who had fewer miles to travel had been collected by their families. Only a few of the mistresses remained to keep charge of us and a lively atmosphere always prevailed. We were taken on picnics and permitted to sit with them in the teachers’ sitting room. We feasted on pastries and fat, crisp sausages, and were allowed to put aside our interminable needlework for once. No, we had not minded our exile, and many an evening we whiled away the hours telling tales of our homelands, for the mistresses had travelled little and were curious. They teased me fondly about hairy-kneed Highlanders and oat porridge while Cosmina made them shiver with stories of the vampires and werewolves that stalked her native Transylvania.

I collected myself from my reverie. “Yes, she was. She always spoke so bewitchingly of her home. She lives in a castle in the Carpathians, you know. She is kin to a noble family there.” I brandished the letter. “She is to be married, and she begs me to come and stay through Christmas.”

“Christmas! That is months away. What will you do with yourself for so long in…goodness, I do not even know what country it is!”

I shrugged. “It is its own country, a principality or some such. Part of the Austrian Empire, if I remember rightly.”

“But what will you do?” Anna persisted.

I folded the letter carefully and slipped it into my pocket. I could feel it through my petticoats and crinoline, a talisman against the worries that had assailed me since my grandfather had fallen ill.

“I shall write,” I said stoutly.

Anna primmed her lips and returned to her needlework.

I went and knelt before her, taking her hands in mine, heedless of the prick of the needle. “I know you do not approve, but I have had some success. It wants only a proper novel for me to be established in a career where I can make my own way. I need be dependent upon no one.”

She shook her head. “My darling girl, you must know this is not necessary. You will always have a home with us.”

I opened my mouth to retort, then bit the words off sharply. I might have wounded her with them. How could I express to her the horror such a prospect raised within me? The thought of living in her small house with four—now five!—children underfoot, too little money to speak to the expenses, and always William, kindly but disapproving. He had already made his feelings towards women writers quite clear. They were unyielding as stone; he would permit no flexibility upon the point. Writing aroused the passions and was not a suitable occupation for a lady. He would not even allow my sister to read any novel he had not vetted first, reading it carefully and marking out offending passages. The Brontës were forbidden entirely on the grounds that they were “unfettered.” Was this to be my future then? Quiet domesticity with a man who would deny me the intellectual freedoms I had nurtured for so long in favour of sewing sheets and wiping moist noses?

No, it was not to be borne. There was no possibility of earning my own keep if I lived with them, and the little money I should have from my grandfather’s estate would not sustain me long. I needed only a bit of time and some quiet place to write a full-length novel and build upon the modest success I had already enjoyed as a writer of suspenseful stories.

I drew in a calming breath. “I am grateful to you and to William for your generous offer,” I began, “but it cannot be. We are different creatures, Anna, as different as chalk and cheese, and what suits you should stifle me just as my dreams would shock and frighten you.”

To my surprise, she merely smiled. “I am not so easily shocked as all that. I know you better than you credit me. I know you long to have adventures, to explore, to meet interesting people and tell thrilling tales. You were always so, even from an infant. I remember you well, walking up to people and thrusting out your hand by way of introduction. You never knew a stranger, and you spent all your time quizzing everyone. Why did Mama give away her cherry frock after wearing it only twice? Why could we not have a monkey to call for tea?” She shook her head, her expression one of sweet indulgence. “You only stopped chattering when you were asleep. It was quite exhausting.”

“I do not remember, but I am glad you told me.” It had been a long time since Anna and I had shared sisterly confidences. I had seen her so seldom since her marriage. But sometimes, very occasionally, it felt like old times again and I could forget William and the children and the little vicarage that all had better claims upon my sister.

“You would not remember. You were very small. But then you changed after Papa died, became so quiet and close. You lost the trick of making friends. But I still recall the child you were, your clever antics. Papa used to laugh and say he ought to have called you Theodore, for you were fearless as any boy.”

“Did he? I scarce remember him anymore. Or Mama. It’s been just us for so long.”

“And Grandfather,” she said with a smile of gentle affection. “Tell me about the funeral. I was very sorry to have been left behind.”

William had not thought it fit for a lady in her interesting condition to appear at the funeral, although her stays had not even been loosened. But as ever, she was obedient to his wishes, and I had gone as the last remaining Lestrange to bid farewell to the kindly old gentleman who had taken us in, two tiny children left friendless in a cold world.

Keeping my hands entwined with hers, I told her about the funeral, recounting the eulogium and the remarks of the clergyman on Grandfather’s excellent temper, his scholarly reputation, his liberality.

Anna smothered a soft laugh. “Poor Grandfather. His liberality is why your prospects are so diminished,” she said ruefully.

I could not dispute it. Had he been a little less willing to lend money to an impecunious friend or purchase a book from a scholar fallen upon hard times, there would have been a great deal left in his own coffers. But there was not a man in Edinburgh who did not know to apply to Professor Mungo Lestrange if he was a man of both letters and privation.

“Was Mr. Beecroft there?” she asked carefully. She withdrew her hands from mine and took up her needlework again.

I looked for something to do with my own hands and found the fire wanted poking up. I busied myself with poker and shovel while I replied.

“He was.”

“It was very kind of him to come.”

“He is my publisher, and his firm published Grandfather’s work. It was a professional courtesy,” I replied coolly.

“Rather more a personal one, I should think,” she said, her voice perfectly even. But we had not been sisters so long for nothing. I detected the tiny note of hope in her tone, and I determined to squash it.

“He has asked me to marry him,” I told her. “I have refused him.”

She jumped and gave a little exclamation as she pricked herself. She thrust a finger into her mouth and sucked at it, then wrapped it in a handkerchief.

“Theodora, why? He is a kind man, an excellent match. And if any husband ought to be sympathetic to a wifely pen it is a publisher!”

I stirred up the coals slowly, watching the warm pink embers glow hotly red under my ministrations. “He is indeed a kind man, and an excellent publisher. He is prosperous and well-read, and with a liberal bent of mind that I should scarce find once in a thousand men.”

“Then why refuse him?”

I replaced the poker and turned to face her. “Because I do not love him. I like him. I am fond of him. I esteem him greatly. But I do not love him, and that is an argument you cannot rise to, for you did not marry without love and you can hardly expect it of me.”

Her expression softened. “Of course I understand. But is it not possible that with a man of such temperament, of such possibility, that love may grow? It has all it needs to flourish—soil, seed and water. It requires only time and a more intimate acquaintance.”

“And if it does not grow?” I demanded. “Would you have me hazard my future happiness on ‘might’? No, it is not sound. I admit that with time a closer attachment might form, but what if it does not? I have never craved domesticity, Anna. I have never longed for home and hearth and children of my own, and yet that must be my lot if I marry. Why then would I take up those burdens unless I had the compensation of love? Of passion?”

She raised a warning finger. “Do not collect passion into the equation. It is a dangerous foe, Theodora, like keeping a lion in the garden. It might seem safe enough, but it might well destroy you. No, do not yearn for passion. Ask instead for contentment, happiness. Those are to be wished for.”

“They are your wishes,” I reminded her. “I want very different things. And if I am to find them, I cannot tread your path.”

We exchanged glances for a long moment, both of us conscious that though we were sisters, born of the same blood and bone, it was as if we spoke different dialects of the same language, hardly able to take each other’s meaning properly. There was no perfect understanding between us, and I think it grieved her as deeply as it did me.

At length she smiled, tears blurring the edges of her lashes. She gave a sharp sniff and assumed a purposeful air. “Then I suppose you ought to tell me about Transylvania.”

The rest of that day was not a peaceful one. William was firmly opposed to the notion of my sojourn in the Carpathians and it took all of Anna’s considerable powers of persuasion even to bring the matter into the realm of possibility. I did not require William’s permission—he had no legal claim upon me—but I wanted peace between us. At length I withdrew from my labours in the library, leaving them to speak alone and therefore more freely. I had little doubt Anna could convince him of the merits of my plan. She had only to stress the cramped condition of the vicarage and the noble status of my hosts, for William had a touch of the toady about him.

BOOK: The Dead Travel Fast
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