Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Opening chapter of Dances Sacred & Profane

Here's the opening chapter of my novel Dances Sacred & Profane: my sort-of-sequel to Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, by way of Hammer Films' The Vampire Lovers - the closest thing to an honest-to-goodness magnum opus I may ever have in me. The novel is available from Amazon's kindle store HERE...

1./ I woke to a quickening pulse of green light through the shade across the sleeping compartment's window. I lay and stared at the irregular flicker, too warmly cradled by the soft sheets and the lullaby clatter of the train's wheels to feel any presbyterian compulsion towards a swift rising, such as a chilly Scottish morning would have stirred. When the guard's rap on the door announced breakfast, I dragged back the covers and stepped to the window, drawing up the shade to reveal that the play of emerald glints was the refraction of sunlight off forest boughs crowding the side of the track. I supposed we must be nearing the Austrian border.

By the time I had taken my seat in the buffet car, we were slowing into the little station at the border post, the officers there very decently waiting until we first class passengers had finished dining before troubling us over passports.

My own inspection completed, I strolled the platform, taking my first proper breath of Austrian air, finding it piney-sweet with the lazy ripplings of the ocean of trees on every side. I caught the tang of wood-smoke, a thin and silvery plume unfurling amid the tree-tops banked high on the left of the track. Behind me, past the idling chuff of the engine, I discerned the roar of water through the gorge over which a bridge had just carried us. From that same direction came a clang of cow-bells, but the forest's immensest sound was the all-surrounding chatter of crickets. I raised my face to the sun and, in the instant before the glare forced my eyes to close, gained a vision of mountains staggered impossibly high above the highest firs, their grey and white crags where greens and browns could not reach melting into a paler shade of the blue the sky wore.

I was distracted by a compartment door's flapping wide and thumping against the wood alongside. Two of the station's officers were steering a young man from my carriage across the platform, his tall body hunched in its ill-fitting grey suit. He glanced my way, forcing a smile past his lop-sided moustache. Another officer opened the door of a little shack on the platform and the young man was hastened through, eyes directed forwards once again, the clench of his features reminiscent of a pupil at Burns Street Primary School being delivered to Mr. McAllion for a dose of the strap.

Our conductor was hurrying towards me, urging me to get aboard. I made the condition of my return an answer as to what was happening. "Fraulein, Fraulein, this... this is nothing for you to worry, " he said. "He is just... the man is, ay, ein Slav, ein Slavisches Kriminal, ein Serb. Or a… a suspect, to be sure, There is trouble, you see, with the, the politics today. Yes? They will put him on the next train if all is well. Now, please, we must keep time for Wien. Bitte."

I climbed aboard. We started off. Through the window of the door that had just been slammed at my back, I glimpsed the young man beyond the hut's window, caught by the sunlight blazing into the first couple of feet of an otherwise dark interior. He was taking off his jacket, an oval stain of sweat on the rear of his white shirt. I started towards my compartment, the conductor's portly wriggle along the corridor at my back closing off all other avenues. He was already forcing on me the menu for luncheon.


We raced on through the Salzkammergut, the Austrian equivalent of our Lake District, although far more richly-forested and steeper in its mountains, many of which still bore streaks of snow and precipitous expanses of glacier. The track snaked high above the lakes, their glassy surfaces painted the brightest of blues by the sky’s reflection.
We wound by onion-domed churches, schlosses, hunting lodges, lakeside hamlets, pausing at a few of the larger spa towns. My attention was drawn south towards the middle-distance and the jaggedness of the Dachstein alps, these marking the border between the Salzkammergut and the more secretive district of Styria, in which I had come to work.

Styria's proximity brought anxieties about my new post buzzing forth, sharper than ever in their stings to my confidence. Queen of this swarm remained the fabled Carla. Why, I asked myself for the thousandth time, was I being hired by Mr.Barsett as English tutor for his daughters when he already employed a governess who, though Austrian, had been leading the girls through their studies in English with, from the sound of things, an assured command of the language and literature? Or were Mr.Barsett's British agents merely being discreet when I raised the subject at my interview for the post? Did our shared employer bear some essential dissatisfaction with Carla's work; was he waiting merely to ensconse me in the schoolroom before dismissing her? Was my term to commence with the ugly scene of a colleague's being expelled? Would his daughters cheer her going or reject me as a paternal imposition?


It was late afternoon when the train reached Vienna's Westbahnhof. Gathering my three cases, I descended to the platform. It was, of course, a faux pas for a first-class passenger to stumble under the burden of her own luggage and a bull-like porter was soon wrestling the cases from my arms. He strode ahead, leaving me to keep pace as best I could. The platform itself was a torrent of dismounted passengers and greeters of passengers, amid which my eyes flitted in search of an employer I had never seen before.

The arrest of my porter just short of the gateway onto the concourse, seized by a figure darting from the thickest concentration of neck-craners and arm-wavers, prompted a flutter of anticipation in my stomach. But no: this little man, small and thin-boned in his fussy movements as one of the pigeons fluttering overhead, the sags and wrinkles on his gaunt face combining with the white stubble under his bowler hat to indicate the further end of middle age, jarred unacceptably with my hypothesised image of Mr. Kenneth Barsett.

All the same, the fellow was submitting my porter to an interrogation under which the bulkier man tilted and nodded like a tree given brisk chops halfway through its trunk. As I drew close, the little man faced me. "You are, excuse me," he asked, his accent the softest shade of German, "Miss Isobel MacMurdo?"

"Yes, yes, I - " I had begun, when a broad arm, jacketed in dark blue, stretched between us, its powerful hand, a hint of dark hair on the back, passing a half-smoked cigar to the bowler-hatted man, who took it not to smoke but to cradle, dutifully.

"Of couse you are," rumbled a voice to make me think of a bear taking its honey-fatted ease against a sun-warmed rock. The distinctly English intonation, a hint of the rural south-west buried, perhaps, beneath generations of refinement, made me turn with a shiver of certainty as to whom I should meet.

Mr.Barsett, dwarfing my anticipations, doffed his Homburg hat from a head of dark brown hair thinly templed with grey.

"One catches instantly the accents of Caledonia," he was saying. Although in early middle-age, he retained a hint of youthful muscularity, his square-boned face boasting a full but smoothly-trimmed moustache, its dark brown showing hints of the darkest reds.
"I'm Kenneth Barsett," he said, “your affectionate correspondent.” His warm paw of a hand closed about the slip of skin and bone I sent to meet it, his deep brown eyes staring into my waterier specimens as if he were taking a professional interest in the precise shade of their blue.

"Shall we trot?" he continued. He signalled the other man, who nodded and completed a muttering of instructions to the porter before sending the fellow before us, the little man then passing the cigar back to his master and facing me with a nod and a doffing of his bowler.

"This is my man Clemens," Mr.Barsett explained. "Valet, majordomo, guardian angel."

"Miss," nodded Clemens before popping the hat back on his head and scampering after the porter, whom he appeared to correct upon the holding of one of my bags at an inappropriate angle. With the slightest touch at my elbow, Mr.Barsett signalled that we should follow.

"How was your journey?" he asked. "You certainly had a pleasant day for hurtling the width of Austria."

"Yes, yes, it was beautiful, very... very beautiful," I replied, struggling to keep pace with his stride. "I look forward to seeing Styria tomorrow. Oh... will it be tomorrow?"

"What? Oh... oh, yes. I apologise for this roundabout route, but when your arrival coincided with my bringing Anabella here, well, I thought it might be as well for you to make the trip to Scharlachklippe with us. And it does afford you the chance for at least a glance around the capitol. Before we hasten you to less civilised parts."

"And tell me, your daughter... has the doctor here been able to help?"

"Oh, he's looked into this and that without, you know these experts, commiting himself to a straight answer. Nonetheless, she's perked up since we've been here. I suppose Anabella’s at that stage of young womanhood where they’re susceptible to all sorts of... influences. Perhaps it was just in her mind. We did get rather cooped up out there this last winter. At any rate, we can be off after breakfast tomorrow."

We had reached the doorway of the station and an onward view, over the cluster of motor cabs and horse-drawn carriages by the foot of the steps, to where sunlit streets streamed together from several directions, rumbling on into a broad main street, this leading towards the centre of the city, the richly ornamented facades of the buildings gleaming above the traffic like foam-bows.

A further touch at my elbow steered me down the steps and towards one motor cab in particular, Clemens shepherding both porter and driver through a geometrically precise loading of my cases. Mr.Barsett ushered me into the cab's back seat, squeezing his larger form through to join me as soon as he had clinked change into the porter's hand. Clemens and the cabbie climbed into the front seats, the former muttering what sounded like not merely the name of our destination but instructions as to the avoidance of every intervening bump in the road.

We roared from the kerb, swerving into that great shop-lined street, the cab weaving through a dense fabric of motor cars, wagons, carriages, hansoms and electric trams, the bright wood, metal and glass of all these dazzling in their play with the late afternoon sunshine. I glimpsed curvaceous rooftops with gilded slates; palatial shop-fronts with extravagant window displays; blue-robed madonnas and pinkish-plump cherubs painted immensely on church-fronts, the heavenly figures seeming to float on the intervening telegraph wires as surely as on their painted clouds, these jostled by the scarcely less numinous goddesses of artful, but somewhat immodest, advertising hoardings. Accustomed to the dour Protestant architecture of my native Glasgow, I felt as if I had stumbled into an operetta with a whole city for its stage.

Our path crossed the Ringstrasse enclosing the city’s medieval heart, the sky-impaling steeple and zig-zag patterned roof of St.Stephen's Cathedral rearing above the chocolate box facades like a Dies Irae disrupting a performance of Die Fledermaus. As our car turned by the Opera House - achitecturally, more fist in imperious gauntlet than gilded temple of frivolity - and swerved along narrower streets, the cathedral’s soot-dark sonorities kept reasserting themselves between the gaily-coloured shopfronts.

Our final swerve and halt swept away all intervening architecture, leaving me, as Mr. Barsett helped me climb out, peering up from close quarters at the cathedral’s rowdy gargoyles and grimy sculptings of saviours and angels and Our Ladies, my gaze reeling all the way to a roof and steeple seen from the perspective of a beetle in a giraffe’s shadow.

So thoroughly did the building seize the attention that I thought for a moment Mr. Barsett's influence must have allowed him to gain accomodation for us under that towering roof. It was only with another touch at my elbow that he drew my attention to the other buildings in this cramped corner of the plaza. The nearest of them, a short flight of marble steps climbing to a gilt-edged doorway in its butter-yellow facade, was our hotel.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.