Only two weeks to go until The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla… and it just dawned on me that I haven’t shared a scrap of the Colin and Eloise portion of the book!
Here, with just two weeks to go, is the entire, unabridged Prologue (aka the first Colin and Eloise chapter) of The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla….
“Vampire: Fact or Fiction?” announced Megan grandly.
An undergrad reading Kant in German raised a brow and went back to her critique of pure reason. The tourists at the table next to us edged their plastic chairs ever so slightly towards the other side, bumping into a potted plant in the process.
“So you’ve picked a title, then?” I said.
Megan shrugged. “It’s a little over the top, but I thought, why not? It’s almost Halloween, after all.”
So it was. I’d been back in the U.S. for nearly three months now. We’d gone from the sticky heat of late August in Cambridge, the campus deserted except for the sleepy flies on the windowsills and a handful of stressed-out grad students in their carrels at Widener Library, to the Indian summer of September, when bewildered freshmen roamed the streets in defensive herds, turning up at the wrong buildings and crowding the tables at Au Bon Pain. It was October now. The freshmen had settled into their dorms; the upperclassmen were out and about, belatedly buying their course books at the Coop and arguing loudly about existentialism in the upstairs room of Café Algiers.
Summer seemed like a very long time ago. Sometimes, as I scurried from Widener to Robinson Hall, books clutched in one arm, a Vietnamese coffee from Toscanini’s dripping on the other, it seemed hard to believe that I had ever left, had ever spent a year in England, had ever lived—albeit temporarily—in a Georgian manor in Sussex with an Englishman named Colin.
It sounds like something out of a chick flick, doesn’t it? Take one American graduate student on her research year in England, wearing reasonably cute boots, add a set of family archives and the handsome but mysterious owner thereof. Cue dramatic music.
Of course, in real life, it was all a great deal more prosaic than that.
Admittedly, when I’d first met Colin, he’d done his best to impersonate Mr. Rochester, if Rochester had been blond and given to wearing an ancient Barbour jacket. Despite those impediments, Colin had managed to brood quite forbiddingly when I’d requested access to his family archives. He was rather protective of the family heritage, which contained a truly dramatic number of undercover agents.
There was a time when I’d wondered if Colin might be one himself.
But I was over that now. Mostly. In any case, the only agents of whom I was officially on the trail were all two centuries gone. My mission was to winkle out their escapades—and turn them into footnotes in my dissertation: Aristocratic Espionage During the Wars with France, 1789–1815.
With enough academese, even swashbuckling spies can be rendered dry as dust.
But that was just a front. The truth of the matter was that my interest had long since become less about the dissertation and more a personal involvement with the people whose escapades I was reconstructing, piecemeal, from a sometimes conflicting array of documents. I was meant to be studying all three of the major British spy leagues—the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian, and the Pink Carnation—but my interest had come to focus more and more narrowly on the Pink Carnation.
I could find all sorts of ways to justify it: the Carnation was in operation much longer, and therefore made a better case study; the League had experimented with different techniques and methods, which told us something about the evolution of aristocratic spying from an ad hoc endeavor to a quasi-professional enterprise. And, of course, the Carnation was a woman, one Miss Jane Wooliston, who, with the help of her erstwhile chaperone, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, had hoodwinked Napoleon for close on a decade. It was so simple that it was genius. Who would suspect a demure lady of society to be fronting the most audacious undercover enterprise since Odysseus came up with the bright idea of knocking a few wooden slats together and calling them a horse?
At least, that was how the League of the Pink Carnation had operated during the first three years of its existence. I’d blithely assumed that the Pink Carnation had gone on that way, refining her technique without changing it. But documents I’d found just before I left England had held out the tantalizing prospect that, in fact, the Pink Carnation had precipitated a major shake-up at some point in 1805, switching from the existing League structure to something more like a solo agent.
I was itching to uncover more. Why had the Pink Carnation broken with her longtime partner and chaperone, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, in 1805? Was it because of Miss Gwen’s marriage and subsequent success as a novelist? Or was that just a guise? Were the Pink Carnation and Miss Gwen really still in partnership, albeit operating on different fronts, Miss Gwen in London, the Pink Carnation abroad?
It seemed as though every thread I followed led not just to another thread but to a whole skein of them, all waiting to be unraveled. But instead of unraveling them, here I was, back in the wrong Cambridge, laying waste my hour trying to drum Western Civ, 1650 to the Present, into the heads of two sections of uninterested undergrads, while also wrangling a bunch of disaffected teaching fellows. I’d promised to take the Head TF job for Western Civ, so dutifully back to the States I had come, leaving my mysteries unsolved.
And Colin back in England.
Megan said something. I gave a little shake of my head and forced myself to try to pay attention. “Sorry. What was that?”
Megan and I had gotten into the habit of a weekly Thursday lunch at Campo de Fiore, the tiny pizza place in the middle of the Holyoke Center, before sallying off to teach our respective Hist and Lit tutorials. Megan was the Lit, I was the Hist, but undergrads who hadn’t done the reading were undergrads who hadn’t done the reading however you looked at it. It was easier to deal with them after a fortifying lunch heavy on the carbohydrates and caffeine.
Sometimes we met for a restorative drink after as well, but this wasn’t going to be one of those days.
Megan looked at me sympathetically. “No problem,” she said, and took a bite of her potato pizza. Through a mouthful of spud and crust, she said indistinctly, “When does Colin get here?”
I checked my watch, which hadn’t moved very far from the last time I had checked it. “His plane gets in around four.”
By which time my apartment would be clean and sparkling, there would be groceries in the fridge, and all stray bits of spinach would have been removed from my teeth. Or at least the spinach bit. My tutorial ran from one to three. With any luck, it would take Colin a while to get a cab, thus giving me more time to repair the wear and tear of teaching and scrub the miscellaneous coffee stains off my person.
Megan leaned forward, the wooden beads of her necklace narrowly missing the straw sticking out of her Diet Coke. “Are you nervous?”
Me? Nervous? I jabbed at an ice cube with my own straw. “We talk every day.”
Some days longer than others. With Colin five hours ahead, we tended to speak at odd times; it was either insanely early my time or late at night his. Not to mention transcontinental rates being what they were, even with a good deal on a long-distance calling card. I was managing on a teaching fellow’s income and Colin had a money-guzzling old house to support. Which meant, in sum, that four nights out of five, our phone calls were little more than a pro forma “just to hear your voice.”
It’s amazing how quickly someone familiar can start to feel alien and how pro forma that pro forma becomes.
I had left a toothbrush in the holder at Selwick Hall and two sweaters and a nightgown in “my” drawer. At Colin’s insistence, I might add. It was as if we were both afraid that absence might break the fragile thing we had built between us, as if we might tether ourselves together across the Atlantic through the magical invocation of the bristles of an Oral-B and a J.Crew cashmere-merino blend.
Sometimes, I took comfort from the fact that my toothbrush was still there. Other times, in the twilight, when I was tired from teaching and alone in my little studio apartment, in those dreary moments when the sun has gone down but you haven’t quite turned on the lights, a purple plastic toothbrush seemed a very fragile object on which to build my future happiness.
Nine out of ten dentists notwithstanding.
Megan checked her watch and grimaced. “Twelve forty-five,” she said.
It was our fifteen-minute warning. Tutorial started at one. Office space being scarce, especially for the junior of the junior, we both taught our tutorials in the café at the Barker Center, the vast redbrick building that housed the English department.
I was a little jealous. The history department didn’t have a café. We just had a black plastic coffeemaker that no one ever remembered to clean.
“At least we’re in your territory today,” I said, heaving my black leather satchel up on my shoulder.
In honor of Halloween, we had joined forces. We were teaching Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With particular reference to gender politics and class considerations. This was Hist and Lit, after all. If you couldn’t work the term “liminal” into your tutorial, you were doing it wrong.
Megan made the sort of face I make when people assume I’m a Victorianist. “Not really. . . . People have already worked Carmilla and Dracula to death. I’m looking at the antecedent narratives. Earlier references to vampires in popular fiction,” she translated.
Lit people tend to assume that Hist people are a little slow. From their point of view, we’re practically social scientists, and everyone knows what those social scientists are like.
“Yep, understood,” I said. “So like what?”
Most of the works she mentioned were completely unknown to me. I let the catalogue of names wash over me as I crumpled my napkin onto my paper plate. I was trying to determine whether there was enough Coke left in my cup to justify taking it with me when I heard Megan say, “Then there’s The Convent of Orsino. . . .”
The name acted on me like an electric shock. I nearly dropped my waxed-paper cup. “You’re writing about The Convent of Orsino?”
Megan stopped with her own straw halfway to her lips. “You’ve heard about The Convent of Orsino?”
Had I heard of The Convent of Orsino?
It was a long and rather improbable story, involving family feuds and lost jewels, so I decided to boil it down to essentials. “The author was one of Colin’s ancestors. Ancestresses. Whatever.” I couldn’t resist bragging a bit. “There’s a great big ornate first edition at Selwick Hall.”
Megan choked on the dregs of her Diet Coke. “I can’t believe you actually got to hold a first edition of The Convent of Orsino.”
“Phrases that don’t come up often . . . ,” I murmured.
“This is great! You can help me out. I mean, Colin can help me out.” Common sense tempered academic fervor. Megan shot me a sheepish glance. “If that’s okay with you. I don’t want to monopolize your Colin time.”
“It depends on what you want him for,” I said cheerfully.
Colin was supposed to be in town for four days—a very short time by some reckonings, a very long time by others. I hadn’t known what to plan or not plan. In England, our days had simply meandered peacefully along: Colin had worked on the spy novel he was convinced would make him the next Ian Fleming, I had worked on my dissertation, and in the evenings we had watched silly movies or headed out to the Heavy Hart, ye olde local pub (trivia night on Tuesdays, chicken tikka on Thursdays).
Now that he was coming to my turf, I wasn’t quite sure how we were meant to fill twenty-four hours a day.
Today was Thursday. Sunday was Halloween, and, incidentally, my birthday eve. I was an All Souls’ Day baby, which was technically the reason for Colin’s visit. We were also just a few weeks shy of our one-year anniversary. Colin had been hinting for several phone calls now at a “special surprise.” I veered between expecting a proposal and a pair of thermal socks.
All right, maybe not the thermal socks (although they would be useful if I returned to Selwick Hall for the winter holiday), but I was trying not to get my hopes up, and thermal socks were the least romantic thing I could think of. Naturally, the more I told myself “thermal socks,” the more I secretly convinced myself that Colin was going to show up with the Ancestral Ring of the Selwicks, prostrate himself on my none-too-clean floor, and beg for the honor of my hand.
Or something along those general lines.
There were a number of flaws to this fantasy. Among other things, if there ever had been an Ancestral Ring, I was reasonably sure Colin’s mother would long since have traded it in for something sleek and trendy.
In an attempt at sanity, I said, “I’m sure we can make time for a coffee. What do you want to pick his brains about?”
“Anything he can tell me about this ancestor of his,” said Megan, dodging a group of tourists who appeared to have meant to go to Au Bon Pain next door and were looking in vain for a connecting door.
“That’s more my province than Colin’s. What about her?”
Mrs. William Reid, née Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, had been the second-in-command of the Pink Carnation from 1803 through 1805. And I wasn’t entirely convinced that their connection had ended with her marriage. That was part of what I intended to find out. If I could figure out how. The paper trail had dead-ended on me and I hadn’t quite determined which tack to take next.
“Well . . . ,” Megan fingered her beads, the same way she did when trying to figure out how to explain a text to a group of undergrads. “Basically, what I’m looking at are the intersections between fact and fiction in early vampire narratives. Of course,” she added hastily, “we all know that the vampire myth is merely a metaphor for sexual repression and inchoate class conflicts.”
“Yup,” I said, nodding encouragingly. “But . . .”
Reassured, Megan went on. “But there’s a chicken-and-egg factor. You get vampire scares that lead to myths that lead to scares that lead to myths. Many of them predating Dracula by a fair amount.”
Without having to consult, we detoured into Toscanini’s for pre-class coffees. The coffee in the Barker Center was of the college cafeteria variety, for emergency use only. “Where does The Convent of Orsino come into this? I’ll have a large Vietnamese coffee, please.”
“And I’ll have a skim latte.” Megan rooted in her wallet for cash, dropping an extra dollar in the tip jar. “I’d thought The Convent of Orsino was a perfect example of an antecedent event transmuted into a fictionalized narrative in a way that reified class and gender concerns.”
My head was spinning a bit, so I seized on the easiest piece. “What antecedent event are you talking about?”
I’d spent a fair amount of time with The Convent of Orsino, and as far as I could tell, it was all fiction.
The book followed the exploits of Plumeria, the dashing chaperone, who teamed up with the aging-but-still-got-it Sir Magnifico to rescue Magnifico’s insipid daughter, Amarantha, from the clutches of the sinister but attractive Knight of the Silver Tower, aka the vampire. I was pretty sure that Plumeria was a thinly veiled alter ego for Miss Gwen, and I strongly suspected that the Knight of the Silver Tower was the French spymaster the Chevalier de la Tour d’Argent—who, by the way, was not, as far as I could tell, any kind of undead. He had, however, committed the cardinal sin of pissing off Miss Gwen, and was therefore condemned to roam the ranks of vampire fiction for eternity as a spoony, moony, self-loathing creature of the night. In sparkly armor.
“That’s just the problem,” said Megan mournfully. “It turns out it’s the other way around. The book came first. And it was so perfect.”
I took a long, bracing swig of my coffee, so strong that it made Starbucks taste like a distant second cousin to caffeine. “What was?”
Outside, the air was crisp and bracing, perfect jacket weather. We picked up our pace in an attempt to get to the Barker Center before our students did. There’s always a little loss of moral high ground when the TF is five minutes late. And, trust me, we needed all the moral high ground we could get.
Breathlessly, Megan said, “There was a vampire scare in London—including a woman turning up dead with fang marks on her neck—and the author of The Convent of Orsino was all over it—but it looks like it happened after her book, not before.”
“Whoa.” Miss Gwen and vampires? I stumbled as my heel caught on a bit of uneven brickwork and just managed not to up-end my coffee over my cream-colored sweater. “All over it how?”
I was amused by the idea of Miss Gwen as a sort of parasol-toting Van Helsing, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be something more to it. Whenever people turned up dead around Miss Gwen, they tended to be connected in some way or another to French spy rings. The Convent of Orsino came out in 1806. If my hunch was right, then maybe the dissolution of her partnership with the Pink Carnation was exactly what I had expected it was, a front.
It would make a brilliant chapter. If it were true.
“There was this duke—,” Megan began, and broke off as one of our students chugged up to us.
“Eloise? Megan?” She had the expression of contrition down pat. “I’m, like, SO sorry. . . .”
And it began.
“Don’t worry,” Megan was saying patiently. She gave me a shoot-me-now look over the girl’s head. “I’m sure you can find some way to make up the work.”
Grrr. The hands of the clock in the hall of the Barker Center clicked to one. Vampires were going to have to wait. And in three hours, my boyfriend was getting off a plane from England.
I thought of all the things I had intended to do before Colin arrived: shower, laundry, shove miscellaneous overdue library books into a coherent pile, go through the fridge to remove evidence of microwave dinners for one, buy fresh flowers to put into a vase (which led to the next item: buy a vase into which to put fresh flowers). Oh, yes, and bake cookies. Because, as we all know from Clueless, it’s important to have something baking.
Then I thought about Miss Gwen and vampires.
If I left directly after tutorial and hightailed it home, I would have time for at least the shower and quite possibly the library books. After all, any information Megan might have about Miss Gwen’s escapades in 1806 was already two hundred years old. It would keep for the weekend. It had been three long months since I had seen Colin. Surely, he deserved a little more consideration—and possibly, some fresh flowers—than a batch of long-dead spies?
I caught up to Megan as we joined the students jostling their way into the café of the Barker Center.
I couldn’t believe I was doing this, but . . .
“Do you have time for a very quick drink after tutorial?” I murmured. “I want to hear more about your vampire . . .”
You can find the first historical chapter here.
The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla appears on shelves two weeks from today, on August 5!