The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman

Part One: All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter 2

 

  The Old Man

  Throughout the crossing, Beauregard was uncomfortably aware of the wounded man lying in a corner of the cabin. Given his condition, Captain Spenser was unnaturally quiet.

  When an orderly had found him, Spenser was on the point of driving in a fifth nail. It seemed he intended to porcupine his entire skull. The inevitable diagnosis was a failure of nerve, but Beauregard thought it must take a steady hand to perform such an operation upon oneself.

  Beauregard reproached himself for his failure to appreciate the strain put on Spenser by the demands of Diogenes. A man may know too many things. Sometimes, Beauregard wished his own skull would open and let his secrets escape. It would be pleasant to be innocent and ignorant.

  After years of service to the Diogenes Club, Charles Beauregard sat with the venerable Mycroft and the eccentric Smith-Cumming on the Ruling Cabal, highest echelon of the Secret Service. His whole life had been lived in the dark.

  The Channel was gentle. He chatted with the Quaker stretcher-bearer, Godfrey. He had chosen ambulance duty over prison and been decorated for bravery under fire at Vimy Ridge. Beauregard recognised as a better man one who would die for his country but not kill. He regretted each time he had killed; but he also regretted, in a single instance, not killing. At the sacrifice of his own life, he might have put an end to Count Dracula. Often, as he got older, he thought of those seconds.

  At Newhaven quay, nurses awaited a small group of maddened officers. As a group, the men were quiet and pliable.

  They were shepherded with kindly firmness by the nurses. Four years ago, the army had considered shell-shock deplorable cowardice. After seasons of gruelling war, breakdowns were almost de rigueur for the better sort of officer. The second son of the Duke of Denver was among the current crop of Dottyville cases.

  No light showed on the dock. German submarines were rumoured to be in the Channel. Beauregard wished the uninterested Spenser good luck and gave Godfrey his card, then crossed the shadowed platform to board the fast train for London.

  He was met at Victoria by Ashenden, a youth who had proved himself a cool hand in Switzerland, and driven through the dark city. Despite rain and unlit streets, purposeful night crowds were everywhere. Even in the heart of Empire, touched only by an odd air raid, it was impossible to forget the war. Theatres, restaurants and pubs (and, doubtless, vice dens and brothels) teemed with soldiers desperate for forgetfulness. Around every group of men in uniform swarmed crowds of hearty fellows eager to stand 'our boys' rounds of drinks and hero-worshipping young women intent on bestowing hot favours. Posters blazoned severe penalties for evading the call- up. Fire-eyed vampire girls scoured Piccadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue with white feathers for presentation to any of their undead brothers not in the King's service. A model trench in Hyde Park impressed an idea of conditions in France upon non- combatants; its cleanliness and home comforts provoked bitter mirth among those on leave from the real thing. At the Queen's Hall, Thomas Beecham conducted a No German Concert: the selection of pieces from English, French and Belgian composers excluded any note of the diabolical kultur of Beethoven, Bach and Wagner. The Scala Cinema offered reels taken at the front (mostly staged in the shire counties) and Mary Pickford in The Little Bat Girl.

  If motion pictures were taken in the streets, a million details would confirm this as a city at war, from women traffic police officers to armed guards in butcher shops. To a man of his advanced years, many specifics reminded him of the Terror, the period thirty years gone when Britain had struggled under the yoke of the then Prince Consort. Commentators like H. G. Wells and Edmund Gosse argued the world war was the consequence of a job left undone. The Revolutionists of the '90s merely drove Dracula from the country when they should have hoisted the demon prince on one of his own stakes. By the second coronation of King Victor in 1897, there had been enough blood. Another civil war was narrowly averted when Lord Ruthven, the Prime Minister, persuaded Parliament to confirm the succession, cutting off his former patron, Dracula, from any right to rule.

  Young Ashenden was patient with the crowds obstructing the car's way. As they idled, waiting for a Salvation Army band to pass, a rap came at the window. The driver looked out, quietly tense in what Beauregard recognised was a habit of their profession. A white feather puffed through the open crack of window and fluttered down.

  'A penalty of serving in secret,' Beauregard said.

  Ashenden put the feather in a tin box by the gears. Inside were a revolver and three or four more tokens of shame.

  'You're accumulating plumage. '

  'Not many chaps my age in mufti this year. Sometimes ladies converge on me like a pincer movement, competing to pass on the feathers. '

  'We'll see what we can do about getting you a medal ribbon. '

  'No need, sir. '

  The Terror was the most vivid period of Beauregard's life. Nights of danger stayed fresh in the memory. His long-healed neck-bites troubled him. He remembered his companion of those nights, the elder Genevieve. These days, he thought more often of his wife Pamela, who had died before Dracula stirred from his Transylvanian fastness. Pamela was of the world of his youth, which now seemed sunlit and charmed. The world without vampires. Genevieve was the fall of twilight, exciting but dangerous. She had left her mark on him. He would have sudden intuitions and know what she was doing, what she was feeling.

  Soldiers lifted the barrier to allow the car into Downing Street. The Prime Minister's guards were elders, Carpathians who had turned against the Impaler during Ruthven's revolt. They wore quasi-mediaeval cuirasses and helmets but carried carbines as well as swords. If Dracula came for Ruthven, these vampires would stand up to their former commander. They had no choice, for Dracula would try to kill them on sight. He was not a forgiving soul, as this war bore out.

  Dracula had left England as he came, as flotsam. When the country turned on him, the Prince Consort surrendered and was put in the Tower of London. It was a ruse: the Tower's spidery master, the Graf von Orlok, loyal to his fellow elder, assisted a daring escape. Floating through Traitors' Gate in a coffin, Dracula gained the Thames, then the open sea.

  When Dracula escaped, Genevieve insisted on guarding Beauregard's bed. She feared the Count would take the opportunity to avenge himself on them. They had struck the blow which began the end of the Terror. Evidently. Dracula had had more pressing business; he never bothered to strike them down. Genevieve was slightly peeved by this neglect. They had altered the course of history, after all. Or so they liked to think. Perhaps individuals could do little to change the tides.

  The car halted outside Number Ten. A liveried vampire footman darted out of the doorway, an unfolded Daily Mail held over his periwig as a shield against the drizzle. Beauregard was ushered up the steps to the Prime Minister's official residence.

  In Europe, Dracula drifted Lear-like from court to court, embarrassing and threatening, playing on his hosts' dislike of parliaments that sacked monarchs. His bloodline spread through houses to which he was connected by his marriage to the late Queen Victoria and by his long-diffused mortal get. After centuries, the crowned heads of Europe all counted Vlad Tepes among their noteworthy ancestors.

  When giving up his overcoat, Beauregard noticed his boots were still liberally coated with the mud of France. That foreign wars were so close to home was a miracle of the modern era.

  Though his old bones resisted, he had men like Ashenden and Edwin Winthrop whisked back and forth by air.

  In Russia, Dracula turned thin-blooded Romanovs, whose shapes shifted catastrophically. Rasputin rose to power, claiming sorcery could assuage the raging lycanthropy afflicting the Tsarevich. Now, the holy charlatan was dead, dismembered by a upyr prince. The Tsar was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. The Diogenes Club understood Dracula had personally arranged the smuggling of Lenin back into Russia in his egregious sealed train.

/>   Number Ten had been redecorated again. The reception hall was a gallery of portraits by distinguished hands of the last three decades: Whistler, Hallward, Sickert, Jimson. To the despair of Cabinet colleagues, who viewed as suspect anything other than a nice Constable landscape, Ruthven now declared himself a passionate Vorticist. Beauregard looked in vain for paintings on subjects other than the current Prime Minister. The grey, sardonic face cast cold eyes from a dozen canvases. Ruthven's craze for himself even embraced works which depicted him in a less than idealised manner, like Wyndham Lewis's representation of his visit to the front.

  In July of 1905, the Romanov yacht Stella Polaris had conveyed Dracula to the Bay of Bjorkoe, off the coast of Finland. He was transferred by rowing boat to the Hohenzollern, the elegant white and gold yacht of another of his great-nephews by marriage, Kaiser Wilhelm II. At the time, the Diogenes Club had intercepted communiques between Prince von Bulow, then the Kaiser's Chancellor, and Konstantin Pobedonostev, the Tsar's close adviser, couched in the usual royal European language of mutual distrust coated with cousinly diplomatic smarm. The Kaiser fervently wanted to believe the Dark Kiss would heal his withered arm. The Russians boosted the Dracula bloodline, concealing the state of the barking Tsarevich, to dupe Willi into taking on the burden of the former Prince Consort.

  Beauregard signed the visitors' book and hurried through a corridor to the Cabinet Room. Carpathians armed with silver- tipped pikestaffs lined the passage. Kostaki, a rehabilitated elder whose fall in the Terror was now rewarded with a trusted position, touched his helm to Beauregard.

  Assuming the title of Graf, Dracula became an ornament to the Imperial Court in Berlin. With all due ceremony, he turned Wilhelm. The Kaiser could at last straighten his hated arm and make a proper fist. The first thing Willi wished to do with his new fingers was sink them into the throats of fellow monarchs, to wrestle away their mastery of the seas, and sundry African, Eastern, Asian and Pacific dominions. Germany, he said, must turn vampire, and find its place in the moonlight.

  British and French authors wrote novels in imitation of The Battle of Dorking, prophesying a coming war between Dracula's Germany and the Civilised World. Viscount Northcliffe serialised such yarns in the Daily Mail, achieving great success with William LeQueux's The Invasion of 1910. Paid-for strategists suggested the New Huns would favour lightning attacks on isolated outposts. Since there was little likelihood of increased circulation of the Mail in such hamlets, Northcliffe insisted the story feature invasions of every major town in the land. The citizens of Norwich and Manchester relished lurid descriptions of their fates when besieged by undead Uhlans. Beauregard remembered the Mail's sandwich men strutting about town in German uniforms, a foretaste of the imagined occupation.

  The Diogenes Club noted the Kaiser's programme of industrialisation and naval expansion, though the intelligence little affected Ruthven's programme of gallery openings and society balls. German rails snaked across the continent, an aid to rapid mobilisation. Britannia's dreadnoughts ruled the waves, but Willi's submarines took command of the deeps. When Heath Robinson, England's engineering genius, took the lead in the development of aircraft, Dracula employed the Dutchman Anthony Fokker to sketch design after design for fighter and bomber aeroplanes.

  Vampirism spread through the Central Powers. Elders who had cowered through nomadic centuries returned to live openly on estates in Germany and Austria-Hungary. The condition had run unchecked in Britain, but Dracula now insisted on regulating the turning of new-borns. Edicts forbade specified classes and races of men and women to turn. Wilhelm sneered that Britain and France elevated poets and ballerinas to immortality; in his domains, the privilege was reserved to those willing to fight for their country and hunt their own human prey.

  In 1914, having occupied a succession of military and political posts, Dracula assumed the twin positions of Chancellor and Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the Fatherland. Beauregard wondered how the former Vlad Tepes countenanced alliances which ranged him against Romania, the land for which he had fought, and alongside Turkey, the empire he had devoted his warmth to resisting.

  Outside the Cabinet Room, Beauregard was greeted by Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the monocled spymaster who served with him on the Ruling Cabal. It was rumoured the vampire had amputated his own leg with a penknife to free himself from the wreckage of a car accident so he could drape his coat over his dying son, who complained of the cold. His leg was regrown past the knee joint; under a bundle of bandages, a new foot was forming.

  'Beauregard,' Smith-Cumming said, smiling broadly, 'what do you think of the disguise?'

  Smith-Cumming took boyish delight in the element of deception in his profession. He sported a large, patently fake beard. He leered, twitching his horsehair moustache like one of Fred Karno's comedy troupe.

  'I look a proper Hun, what? Can't you just see me biting out the throat of a Belgian nun?'

  He showed huge false fangs, then spat them out to reveal delicate real ones.

  'Where is Mycroft?' Beauregard asked.

  Smith-Cumming looked as serious as was possible for a man in disguise. 'Grave news, I'm afraid. Another stroke. '

  Mycroft Holmes had been on the Ruling Cabal of the Diogenes Club as long as Beauregard had been a member. His plans had held the nation together throughout the Terror.

  Subsequently, he had done much to moderate the odd enthusiasms of the new King and his eternal first minister, Ruthven.

  'We're all under a strain. You've heard about Spenser. '

  Smith-Cumming nodded, appalled.

  'I've had Winthrop step in. He's coming along fast. I trust he'll catch up. '

  'Frightening nights, Beauregard,' Smith-Cumming said.

  It had started on Sunday, the 28th of June, 1914, in Sarajevo, far from the borders where European powers snarled like dogs separated by fences.

  Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of King-Emperor Franz Joseph, was touring Bosnia with his morganatic wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Left to its own devices in 1877 by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia was hardly the most desirable patch of Europe, but Austria-Hungary saw it as a natural addition to already swollen and ungovernable holdings. Franz Joseph had almost surreptitiously annexed the province in 1908. Serbia, not unfairly deemed a catspaw of Russia, also had designs on Bosnia and its sister province, Herzegovina.

  The Archduke was nosferatu, a provocation. The Slavs and Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina did not accept vampires, especially as rulers. Serbian irredentists trumpeted the prevalence of the undead at the King-Emperor's court to stir up those in Bosnia-Herzegovina who wished to be free from bloodsucking Habsburgs. With fine hypocrisy, the Tsar's undead advisers (notably excluding the fanatically warm Rasputin) sent agents to Sarajevo to agitate torch-bearing mobs of vampire-hating Orthodox Christians, Serbian nationalists and cafe trouble-makers. Pamphlets appeared giving obscene accounts of the Archduke's marital relations with the plumply warm Sophie, a Czech caricatured as a bloodmilk cow.

  It was the unshakable belief of the Central Powers that Tsar Nicky personally ordered a student Van Helsing named Gavrilo Princip to empty a revolver at Franz Ferdinand, putting silver in the Habsburg's vampire heart and incidentally murdering the scabby-necked Sophie. Equally, any adherent of the Allied cause was required to believe Princip a lunatic acting independently of any of the Great Powers, or even a paid agent of a warmongering Kaiser.

  Beauregard once asked Mycroft if Russia was involved. The great man conceded no one truly knew. On one hand, the Okhrana certainly dispensed cash (and, probably, silver bullets) to many of Princip's stripe; on the other, even Artamanov, the attache responsible for handing over funds, was unsure whether the obscure assassin was one of his contacts.

  The Kaiser, seeing an opportunity to redraw the map of Europe, egged the ascetic bureaucrat Franz Josef Ferdinand into issuing a communique to Serbia which must be construed as a preparation for war. Russia was pledge
d to defend Serbia from Austria-Hungary, Germany was required to stand with the King-Emperor in war with Russia, France was bound by treaty to attack any nation that warred with the Romanovs, Germany could strike at France only by invading through Belgium, Great Britain was obliged to preserve Belgian neutrality. Once Princip's silver bullet transfixed the Archduke, the cards fell one by one.

  That summer, Beauregard, contemplating his sixtieth year, was considering retirement. As each alliance was invoked, each nation mobilised, he realised he could not leave his post. Reluctantly, he conceded there would be war.

  In 1918, the question of who ruled Bosnia was remote. The Romanovs faced death by a hammered stake and beheading sickle. Franz Josef Ferdinand's mind was gone, his empire governed by a feuding rabble of Austrian and Magyar elders. The Kaiser had long since ceased to supervise the conduct of the war, which was entirely in the hands of the Graf von Dracula and his new-born clique, von Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

  The doors of the reception room opened and the two active members of the Ruling Cabal were ushered in to see the elder who ruled Great Britain under the standard of King Victor.

  'Gentlemen,' said Lord Ruthven, 'come in and sit down. '

  The Prime Minister was clad entirely in dove grey, from spats and morning coat to ruffled stock and curly-brimmed topper. He was at his bare desk, posed archly beneath another of his own portraits, a martial study by Elizabeth Asquith. The indifferent canvas might have earned a place because the artist's father was Home Secretary in Ruthven's Government of National Unity.

  Others sat in deep armchairs around the room. Lord Asquith sourly contemplated despatches. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was in France, but General Sir William Robertson and General Sir Henry Wilson of His Majesty's General Staff were present, kitted out in dress uniform. Churchill, the baby-faced Minister for Munitions, wore a smock-like robe which tented over his considerable bulk and an American belt with holstered pistols at his hips. Lloyd George, Minister of War, stood by the window chewing on an unlit pipe. Sitting meekly by the Prime Minister was the little-publicised Caleb Croft of the Home Office, his bloody hands in woolly gloves. Croft's duties were too frightening to consider.

  Beauregard and Smith-Cumming took chairs in the centre of the circle.

  'Tell me,' Ruthven purred, 'how goes the secret war?'

 
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