JILLIAN had lucked out. TWA had too many passengers in coach, and so she-she almost giggled as she came down the aisle of the huge plane-had to ride in first class, jeans, muslin shirt and all. She found her seat by the window and shoved her camera bag that doubled as a purse under the seat, then dropped gratefully into the wide, padded chair. This was great, she thought as she fastened her seat belt, and reached down to pull a couple of paperback books out of her bag, then settled back to read.
She had just got into the story when a voice spoke beside her. "Excuse me."
Marking her place with her finger, she looked up and smiled a little at what she saw. The man was short, dark-haired, and dark-eyed, with the look of early middle age about him. His clothes were very simple and obviously expensive. His black three-piece suit was a wool and silk blend, superbly tailored to his trim but stocky figure. His shirt was lustrous white silk against a black silk tie, just the right width, and secured with an unadorned ruby stickpin. Jillian noticed with amusement that his shoes were thick-soled and slightly heeled. "Excuse me," he said again in his pleasant, melodic voice. "I believe that is my seat."
Julian's face sank. This couldn't happen, not after she had been so lucky. She fumbled in her pockets for her boarding pass. "This is the pass they gave me," she said, holding it out to him.
A stewardess, attracted by the confusion, approached them. "Good morning. Is there some trouble?"
The man turned an attractive, wry smile on the woman. "A minor confusion. Your excellent computer seems to have assigned us the same seat."
The stewardess reached for boarding passes, frowning as she read them. "Just a moment. I'm sure we can correct this." She turned away as she spoke and went toward the galley.
"I'm sorry," Jillian said apologetically. Now that she had had a moment to watch the man, she found him quite awesome.
"No, no. Don't be foolish. Machines are far from perfect, after all. And first class is not wholly filled. We will be accommodated easily." He looked down at her with steady, compelling eyes. "I have no wish to impose on you."
Jillian waved her hands to show that there was no imposition and almost lost the book she was holding. She blushed and felt abashed-here she was, almost twenty-two, and blushing for chrissake. A swift glance upward through her fair lashes showed her that the stranger was amused. She wanted to give him a sharp, sophisticated retort, but there was something daunting in his expression, and she kept quiet.
A moment later the stewardess: "I'm sorry, sir," she said to the man. "Apparently there was some difficulty with the print-out on the card. Yours is seat B, on the aisle. If this is inconvenient..."
"No, not in the least." He took the boarding passes from her and handed one to Jillian. "I thank you for your trouble. You were most kind." Again the smile flashed and he bent to put his slim black leather case under the seat, saying to Jillian, "I am, in a way, grateful you have the window."
"Oh," Jillian said, surprised, "don't you like the window?"
"I'm afraid that I am not comfortable flying. It is difficult to be so far from the ground." He seated himself and fastened the seat belt.
Jillian started to open her book again, but said, "I think flying's exciting."
"Have you flown often?" the man asked somewhat absent-mindedly.
"Well, not very often," she confided. "Never this far before. I flew to Denver a couple of times to visit my father, and once to Florida, but I haven't been to Europe before."
"And you've spent the summer in Italy? What did you think of it?" He seemed to enjoy her excitement.
"Oh, Italy's okay, but I did a lot of traveling. I decided to fly in and out of Milan because it seemed a good place to start from." She folded down the corner of her page and set the book aside for the moment. "I liked Florence a lot. You've been there, I guess."
"Not for some time. But I had friends there, once." He folded small, beautiful hands over the seat belt. "What else did you see? Paris? Vienna? Rome?"
"Not Paris or Rome. I went to Vienna, though, and Prague and Budapest and Belgrade and Bucharest and Sofia, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Trieste, and Venice." She recited the major cities of her itinerary with a glow of enthusiasm. It had been such a wonderful summer, going through those ancient, ancient countries.
The man's fine brows lifted. "Not the usual student trek, is it? Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia... hardly countries one associates with American students."
On the loudspeaker, the stewardess said in three languages that cigarettes must be extinguished and seat belts fastened in preparation for take-off.
Jillian frowned. "Is my being an American student that obvious?"
"Certainly," he said kindly. "Students everywhere have a kind of uniform. Jeans and loose shirts and long, straight blond hair-oh, most surely, an American, and from the way you pronounce your r's, I would say from the Midwest."
Grudgingly, Jillian said, "Des Moines."
"That is in Iowa, is it not?"
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of engines roaring as the jet started to move away from the terminal.
The stewardess reappeared and gave the customary speech about oxygen masks, flotation pads, and exits in English, French, and Italian. Jillian listened to the talk, trying to appear nonchalant and still feeling the stir of pleasure in flying. The man in the seat beside her closed his eyes.
For five minutes or so they taxied, jockeying for a position on the runway, one of three jets preparing for takeoff. Then there was the fierce, lunging roll as the plane raced into the air. The ground dropped away below them, there was the ear-popping climb and the hideous sound of landing gear retracting, and then the stewardess reminded the passengers that smoking was permitted in specified sections only, that they were free to move about the cabin, and that headsets for the movie would be available shortly, before lunch was served.
Jillian looked out the window and saw Milan growing distant and small. Without being aware of it, she sighed. "You are sad?" asked the man beside her. "In a way. I'm glad to be going home, but it was such a wonderful summer."
"And what will you do when you get home?" was his next question.
"Oh, teach, I guess. I've got a job at the junior high school. It's my first..." She looked out the window again.
"You don't seem much pleased with your job." There was no criticism in his tone. "If it is not what you wish to do, why do you do it?"
"Well," Jillian said in what she hoped was her most reasonable tone, "I have to do something. I'm not planning to get married or anything..." She broke off, thinking of how disappointed her mother had been when she had changed her mind about Harold. But it wouldn't have worked, she said to herself, as she had almost every day since the tenth of April when she had returned his ring.
"I'm intruding," said the man compassionately. "Forgive me."
"It's nothing," Jillian responded, wanting to make light of it. "I was just thinking how high up we are."
"Were you." His dark, enigmatic eyes rested on her a moment. "Perhaps you would like to tell me of some of the things you saw in eastern Europe."
"Well," she said, glad to have something to occupy her thoughts other than Harold. "I wanted to see all those strange places. They were really interesting. I was really amazed at how different everything is."
"It's not just the way they look, and everything being old," Jillian said with sudden intensity. "It feels different here, like all the things they pooh-pooh in schools are real. When I went to Castle Bran, I mean, I really understood how there could be legends about the place. It made sense that people would believe them."
The man's interest increased. "Castle Bran?"
"Yes, you know, it's very famous. It's the castle that Bram Stoker used as a model for Castle Dracula, at least that's what most of the experts are saying now. I wanted to go to the ruins of the real Castle Dracula, but the weather was bad, so I didn't."
"Strange. But why are you interested in such places? Surely the resistance to the Turkish invasions is not your area of study."
"Oh, no," she laughed a little embarrassed. "I like vampires. Books, movies, anything."
"Indeed." There was an ironic note in his voice now.
"Well, they might not be great art, but they're wonderful to..."
"Fantasize about?" he suggested gently.
Jillian felt herself flush and wished that she hadn't mentioned the subject. "Sometimes." She tilted her chin up. "Lugosi, Lee, all of them, they're just great. I think they're sexy."
The man very nearly chuckled, but managed to preserve a certain gravity that almost infuriated Jillian. "A novel idea," he said after a moment.
"It isn't," she insisted. "I know lots of people who think vampires are sexy."
"American irreverence, do you think?" He shook his head. "There was a time, not so very long ago, when such an avowal would be absolutely heretical."
"That's silly," she said, a little less sure of herself. In her travels, she had come to realize that heresy was not just an obsolete prejudice.
"Hardly silly," the man said in a somber tone. "Men and women and even children died in agony for believing such things. And there are those who think that the practice should be reinstated."
"But it's just superstition," Jillian burst out, inwardly shocked at her reaction. "Nobody today could possibly believe that vampires really exist..."
"Are you so certain they do not?" he inquired mildly.
"Well, how could they?" she retorted. "It's absurd."
He favored her with a nod that was more of a bow. "Of course."
Jillian felt the need to pursue the matter a little more. "If there were such things, they would have been found out by now. There'd be good, solid proof."
"Proof? But how could such a thing be proved? As you said yourself, the idea is absurd."
"There ought to be ways to do it." She hadn't considered the matter before, but she felt challenged by the stranger in the seat beside her. "It wouldn't be the premature burial concerns, because that's a different matter entirely."
"Certainly," he agreed. "If legends are right, burial of a vampire is hardly premature."
She decided to overlook this remark. "The trouble is," she said seriously, "the best way would be to get volunteers, and I don't suppose it would be easy to convince any real vampire that he ought to submit himself to scientific study."
"It would be impossible, I should think," her seat partner interjected.
"And how could it be proven, I mean, without destroying the volunteer? I don't suppose there are any real proofs short of putting a stake through their hearts or severing their heads."
"Burning is also a good method," the man said.
"No one, not even a vampire, is going to agree to that. And it wouldn't demonstrate anything at all. Anyone would die of it, whether or not they were vampires." Suddenly she giggled. "Christ, this is weird, sitting up here talking about experimenting on vampires." Actually, she was becoming uncomfortable with the subject and was anxious to speak of something else.
The man seemed to read her thoughts, for he said, "Hardly what one would call profitable speculation."
Jillian had the odd feeling that she should be polite and decided to ask him a few questions. "Is this your first trip to America? You speak wonderful English, but..."
"But you know I am a foreigner. Naturally." He paused. "I have been to America, but that was some time ago, and then it was to the capital of Mexico. A strange place, that city built on swamps."
His description of Mexico City startled Jillian a little, because though it was true enough that the city had been built on swamps long ago, it seemed an odd aspect of its history to mention. "Yes," she said, to indicate she was listening.
"This is my first visit to your country. It is disquieting to go to so vast a land, and be so far from home."
The stewardess appeared at his elbow. "Pardon me, Count. We're about to serve cocktails, and if you'd like one... ?"
"No, thank you, but perhaps"-he turned to Jillian-"you would do me the honor of letting me buy one for you."
Jillian was torn between her delight at the invitation and the strictures of her youth that had warned against such temptations. Pleasure won. "Oh, please; I'd like a gin and tonic. Tanqueray gin, if you have it."
"Tanqueray and tonic," the stewardess repeated, then turned to the man again. "If you don't want a cocktail, we have an excellent selection of wines..."
"Thank you, no. I do not drink wine." With a slight, imperious nod, he dismissed the stewardess.
"She called you Count," Jillian accused him, a delicious thrill running through her. This charming man in black was an aristocrat! She was really looking forward to telling her friends about the flight when she got home. It would be wonderful to say, as casually as she could, "Oh, yes, on the way back, I had this lovely conversation with a European Count," and then watch them stare at her.
"A courtesy title, these days," the man said diffidently. "Things have changed much from the time I was born, and now there are few who would respect my claims."
Jillian knew something of the history of Europe and nodded sympathetically. "How unfortunate for you. Does it make you sad to see the changes in your country?" She realized she didn't know which country he was from and wondered how she could ask without seeming rude.
"It is true that my blood is very old, and I have strong ties to my native soil. But there are always changes, and in time, one grows accustomed, one adapts. The alternative is to die."
Never before had Jillian felt the plight of the exiled as she did looking into that civilized, intelligent face. "How terrible! You must get very lonely."
"Occasionally, very lonely," he said in a distant way.
"But surely, you have family..." She bit the words off. She had read of some of the bloodier revolutions, where almost every noble house was wiped out. If his was one of them, the mention of it might be inexcusable.
"Oh, yes. I have blood relatives throughout Europe. There are not so many of us as there once were, but a few of us survive." He looked up as the stewardess approached with a small tray with one glass on it. "Ah. Your cocktail, I believe." He leaned back as the stewardess handed the drink to Jillian. "Which currency would you prefer?" he asked.
"How would you prefer to pay, sir?" the stewardess responded with a blinding smile.
"Dollars, pounds, or francs. Choose." He pulled a large black wallet from his inner coat pocket.
"Dollars, then. It's one-fifty." She held out her hand for the bill, and thanked him as she took it away to make change.
Jillian lifted the glass, which was slightly frosted, and looked at the clear liquid that had a faint touch of blue in its color. "Well, thanks. To you." She sipped at the cold, surprisingly strong drink.
"You're very kind," he said, an automatic response. "Tell me," he said in another, lighter tone, "what is it you will teach to your junior high school students?"
"English," she said, and almost added, "of course."
"As a language?" the Count asked, plainly startled,
"Not really. We do some grammar, some literature, some creative writing, a lot of reading." As she said it, it sounded so dull, and a little gloom touched her.
"But surely you don't want to spend your life teaching some grammar, some literature, some creative writing, and a lot of reading to disinterested children." He said this gently, kindly, and watched Jillian very closely as she answered.
"Sometimes I think I don't know what I want," she said and felt alarmed at her own candor.
"I feel you would rather explore castles in Europe than teach English in Des Moines." He regarded her evenly. "Am I correct?"
"I suppose so," she said slowly and took another sip of her cocktail.
"Then why don't you?"
It was a question she had not dared to ask herself and she was angry at him for asking. He had no right, this unnamed former Count in elegant black who watched her with such penetrating dark eyes. He had no right to ask such things of her. She was about to tell him so when he said, "A woman I have long loved very dearly used to think she would not be able to learn everything she wanted to during her life. You must understand, European society has been quite rigid at times. She comes from a distinguished French family, and when I met her, she was nineteen and terrified that she would be forced into the life other women had before she had opportunities to study. Now," he said with a faint, affectionate smile, "she is on a dig, I think it's called, in Iran. She is an accomplished archeologist. You see, she did not allow herself to be limited by the expectations of others."
Jillian listened, ready to fling back sharp answers if he insisted that she turn away from the life she had determined upon. "You changed her mind, I suppose?" She knew she sounded petulant, but she wanted him to know she was displeased.
"Changed her mind, no. It could be said that she changed mine." His eyes glinted with reminiscence. "She is a remarkable woman, my Madelaine." He turned his attention to Jillian once more. "Forgive me. Occasionally I am reminded of... our attachment. I did not mean to be rude. Perhaps I meant to suggest that you, like her, should not permit those around you to make decisions for you that are not what you want."
The stewardess returned with headphones for the movie. It was, she explained, a long feature, a French and English venture, shot predominantly in Spain with an international cast. She held out the headsets to Jillian and to the man beside her.
Though Jillian knew it was unmannerly of her to do so, she accepted the headset with a wide smile and said to her seat partner, "I hate to do this, but I've wanted to see this flick all summer long, and I don't know when I'll have the chance again."
She knew by the sardonic light to his smile that he was not fooled, but he said to her, "By all means. I understand that it is most entertaining."
"Headphones for you, Count?" the stewardess asked solicitously.
"I think not, but thank you." He looked toward Jillian. "If you decide that it is truly worthwhile, tell me, and I will call for headsets."
The stewardess nodded and moved away to the next pair of seats.
"You don't mind, do you?" Jillian asked, suddenly conscience-stricken. The Count had bought her a drink and was being very courteous, she thought, but then again, she did not want him to think that she was interested in him.
"No, I don't mind." He glanced down at his leather case under the seat. "Would it disturb you if I do a little work while the film is running?"
Jillian shook her head and put the thin blue plastic leads to the socket on the arm of her seat. "Go ahead."
He had already pulled the case from under the seat and opened it on his lap. There were three thick, leather-bound notebooks in the case, and he pulled the largest of these out, closed the case, and replaced it. He took a pen from one of his coat pockets and pulled down the table from the seat ahead. He gave Jillian a swift, disturbing smile, then bent his head to his work.
Before the film was half over, Jillian was bored. The plot, which she had thought would be exciting, was tedious, and the filming was unimaginative. Most of the actors looked uncomfortable in their nineteenth-century costumes, and the dialogue was so trite that Jillian could not blame the actors for their poor delivery. She longed to be able to take off the headset and get back to reading, but she was afraid that the Count would engage her in conversation again, and for some reason, this prospect unnerved her. He had a knack for drawing her out. Another half-hour and she would have been telling him about Harold and how he had laughed when she said she wanted to get her Master's before they married. Already he had got her to talk about vampires, and she had never done, that before, not with a stranger. So she kept her eyes on the little screen and tried to concentrate on the dull extravaganza. Once she caught the Count looking at her, amusement in his dark eyes, but then he turned back to the notebook, and she could not be certain whether or not he had sensed her dilemma.
When at last the film ground to a messy, predictable finish, Jillian was anxious to take off the headset. She made a point of reaching for a book before handing the plastic tubing to the stewardess, and shot a quick look at her seat partner.
"If you do not wish to speak to me," he said without turning his attention from the page on which he wrote, "please say so. I will not be offended."
Jillian was grateful and annoyed at once. "I'm just tired. I think I want to read a while."
He nodded and said nothing more.
It was not until they were nearing Kennedy Airport that Jillian dared to talk to her seat partner. She had been reading the same paragraph for almost twenty minutes, and it made no more sense now than the first time she had looked at it. With a sigh she closed the book and bent to put it in her bag.
"We're nearing New York," the Count said. He had put his notebook away some minutes before and had sat back in his seat, gazing at nothing in particular.
"Yes," she said, not certain now if she was glad to be coming home.
"I suppose you'll be flying on to Des Moines."
"In the morning," she said, thinking for the first time that she would have to ask about motels near the airport, because she knew she could not go into Manhattan for the night. Between the taxi fare and the hotel bill, she could not afford that one last splurge.
"But it is only..."-he consulted his watch and paused to calculate the difference in time-"six-thirty. You can't mean that you want to sit in a sterile little room with a poor television for company all this evening."
That was, in fact, precisely what she had intended to do, but his description made the prospect sound more gloomy than she had thought it could be. "I guess so."
"Would you be offended if I asked you to let me buy you dinner? This is my first time in this city, in this country, and it will feel less strange to me if you'd be kind enough to give me the pleasure of your company."
If this was a line, Jillian thought, it was one of the very smoothest she had ever heard. And she did want to go into Manhattan, and she very much wanted to spend the evening at a nice restaurant. A man like the Count, she thought, wouldn't be the sort to skimp on a night out. He might, of course, impose conditions later.
"I have no designs on your virginity," he said, with that uncanny insight that had bothered her earlier.
"I'm not a virgin," Jillian snapped, without meaning to.
The seat belt sign and no smoking signs flashed on, one after another, and the stewardess announced that they had begun their descent for landing.
The Count smiled, the whole force of his dark eyes on her. "Shall we say your virtue, then? I will allow that you are a very desirable, very young woman, and it would delight me to have you as my guest for the evening. Well?"
"You don't even know my name," she said with a smile, her mind already made up.
"It's Jillian Walker," he answered promptly, and added as she stared at him, "It was on the envelope your boarding pass is in."
For a moment, Jillian had been filled with a certain awe, almost a dread, but at this simple explanation, she smiled. A niggling image had risen in her mind, an image developed from her reading and the films she loved. A foreign, exiled Count, in black, of aristocratic, almost regal bearing, who had refused wine... It was an effort not to laugh. "You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"You may call me Franz, if you like. I am Franz Josef Ragoczy, onetime Count, among other things."
"What's that name again?" Something about it was familiar, but she couldn't place it.
"Ragoczy. Rah-go-schkee," he repeated. "It's the German version of the Hungarian variant of the name. As I told you, I come from an ancient line." His expression had softened. "It is agreed, then?"
The plane was descending rapidly, and there was that wrenching clunk as the landing gear was lowered. Ahead the sprawl of Kennedy Airport rose up to meet them.
Whatever reservations that were left in Julian's mind were banished by the warmth in his eyes. If he wanted more than her company, she decided, she would deal with that as it happened. As the plane jounced onto the runway, she grinned at him. "Count, I'd love to have dinner with you."
He took her hand in his and carried it gallantly, ironically, to his lips. "Dinner with me," he echoed her, "dinner with me." There was secret meaning in the soft words that followed, almost lost in the shrieking of the engines. "I will hold you to that, Jillian Walker. Believe this."
Text of a letter from le Comte de Saint-Germain to James Emmerson Tree.
The Mansion Hotel
Santa Fe, New Mexico USA
10 August, 1971
New Townsend Road
Your letter reached me at last, and I am sorry to be so long in replying, though there is little I can say to you that will comfort you. Sadly, it is one of the burdens shared by those of our blood-that we must say goodbye so very often. I recall a couplet: the poetry is not very good, but the sentiment is genuine.
Soon, too soon, comes death to show
We love more deeply than we know.
You say that there was not time enough for Eina to change. Do not regret this too much. Those who change are lost to us in many ways, some as great as the true death itself. You know my feelings for Madelaine, for you have loved her too. Yet there is no recourse for us. It would have been the same for you with Eina. Do not give way to bitterness or contempt for the brevity of life, James; ultimately it would make your grief even more unbearable.
For what little consolation this may be to you, please accept it, and know that I empathise most sincerely.
Text of a letter from le Comte de Saint-Germain to Edward Whittenfield.
Lost Saints Lodge
Post Office Box 101
Fox Hollow, Colorado USA
29 October, 1978
The Honorable Edward G. C. A. Whittenfield
Eleventh Earl of Copsehowe
My dear Copsehowe:
I thank you very much for your letter of 2 August and only regret that it has taken so long to reach me that my reply is delayed. It was most kind of you to contact me and I appreciate it very much.
Your decision to sell off part of the Copsehowe holdings, while understandable in the economy of the current world, is nonetheless lamentable. Doubtless Briarcopse and the Yorkshire hunting lodge will be an asset to the nation, but the loss to your family must be keenly felt.
Since you mention your great-grandfather's Will, I assume you know that the interest expressed by his friend with my name was genuine, and of course, I will honor whatever offer was made. Certainly my primary concern is with the old mirror described in your letter, and I see no reason to quibble about the price. Name the figure you and your representatives consider reasonable and I will at once authorize my London bankers to transfer the sum. There are a few paintings that I would be happy to add to my collection, but I believe it is in your best interests to offer them for competitive bid. Should there be individual works that you might want to hold back for private sale, by all means let me know of them. In the matter of the Turkish carpets, I would be delighted to negotiate for them, with the understanding that they would be sent to the de Montalia estate in France.
This is a difficult time for you, I am sure, but if it provides you any comfort, let me tell you that I respect your decision and know that given the circumstances, your actions are prudent and farsighted.
Again, accept my gratitude for this opportunity: I trust your efforts will prove worthwhile.