Charlotte extended a damp hand to her mother’s new husband, the Duke of Dunroth, and allowed herself to be handed down from the coach. The equipage was liberally bedecked with flowers and drawn by four showy white geldings, hired for the day. She felt shy, and overwhelmed by the grandeur of the occasion in which she was to play a starring part.
Before her, the fashionable bulk of St James’ Church thrust its red brick towers into the ice-blue sky. She could not think it pretty, but her mother had insisted upon the wedding being held here; it was the only Anglican edifice that adequately reflected her consequence as the new Duchess of Dunroth . Above the arched entrance, the tower clock stood at a quarter to twelve. Charlotte was grateful for the veil of fine French lace that shielded her complexion from the pale morning sun: vampyrism, she had discovered to her cost, was not compatible with the full glare of day, even in winter.
Mounting the steps on the Duke’s arm, she passed into the shade of the nave. Five hundred of London’s most blue-blooded denizens turned to observe her entrance, craning their necks over their shoulders. She heard a faint murmur of approbation: for once in her life, it seemed that her appearance met with general approval.
This marriage to a foreign nobleman might not have been quite what her Mama had wished for Charlotte –but once the arrangement was settled, figures pored over, clauses negotiated and contracts signed, Viscountess Debenham - now Duchess of Dunroth - had determined to use the occasion to maximum effect. Accordingly, she had invited all of Society, from the haughtiest matrons to the most fashionable gentlemen of the haut ton. To Charlotte’s embarrassment - and in part due to the notoriety surrounding her step-father, the 'Bad Duke' of Dunroth - the Cathedral was triumphantly crowded.
Charlotte tried to take a deep breath, and found she could not. Fanny, her maid, had laced her rather sturdy form tightly under the bust, and she felt as if imprisoned by her corsets. Her gown consisted of untold yards of white satin, adorned with seed pearls and flounces, while an impressive train rustled out behind her, its considerable weight dragging at her spine. A mist of lace, crowned with orange blossom, frothed from her light brown ringlets, hiding her face. She felt uncomfortable – but for once, almost pretty.
“You look like a Queen, miss.” So had said Fanny, putting the final touches to the ensemble – and at that, Charlotte had allowed herself a wry smile. If only Fanny knew the truth in her careless words. She was not a Queen, but the woman who had inserted herself into Charlotte's mind - courtesy of an unmarked vial of red liquid - certainly had been.
“Come, my dear,” said the Duke, exerting a little pressure on the arm he held tenderly under his own. “Your noble bridegroom is waiting.”
Charlotte did not miss the sneer in his tone. The Duke was no friend to the Count – nor to Charlotte herself - but her own Papa was deceased, and so it had been difficult to gainsay the Duke’s right, as her stepfather, to act in loco parentis. That did not mean that she liked it. Her flesh shrank from his touch –a man who would gladly have cut her throat but a few short months ago, to obtain his longed-for immortality by way of her vampyre blood. Her mother's marriage to the man had been even more hurried than her own - so much so that if it were not for her mother's advanced age, she would have suspected her of anticipating the wedding. She thanked God that after this day, once she stepped over the threshold of her husband’s home, she would no longer have to endure the Duke's leering presence.
It was strange indeed to think - she looked up again at the great, stained glass windows, the massive columns and rapt audience - that this day was all hers. This was the purpose for which she had been born, raised, trained - the culmination of a woman’s hopes and dreams, her greatest triumph. She, plain, frumpy Lady Charlotte Chalmers, was about to make a brilliant match – she, who had never before even received an offer (unless one counted that unfortunate interlude with Oswald, the Vicar of Little Spalding, last summer).
She found herself walking down the aisle in a daze, placing one foot carefully after another, her train lifted behind her by her young cousins, Amelia and Celeste. Multitudes of unknown or barely known faces watched her as she passed –all of whom were judging her comportment, her dress, her looks. Ignoring them all, she fixed her own short-sighted gaze on the figure awaiting her at the altar. These, she reflected nervously, were her last moments as an unmarried maiden, soon to be a wife.
She could not quite believe that she was here, being married, to the Count - today. It had been less than three months since she had seen the Count of Saxe-Coburg Dragenhof for the very first time - as she was cowering on the floor of her now-stepfather's chapel, expecting the very Devil himself. The Count had rescued her, and had proposed marriage, later that very night, but Charlotte did not deceive herself that this had anything to do with love. No, this was a marriage of convenience.
Through no fault of her own, she had become a vampyre and then, it seemed, compounded the error by inadvertently drinking the essence of Queen Anne Boleyn. Now, according to her future husband, she was fated to be possessed by that long dead Queen. The Count had offered to help Charlotte to manage her 'condition', a very gentlemanly offer, in the circumstances.
Charlotte could not deny that from the first, she had liked him, and she thought that he returned the feeling. However, since the moment of this strange engagement, her Mama had harried her into a whirlwind of preparations - the dress, the jewels, the flowers, the invitations - and she and the Count had had little chance for further discussion. Thus, on this momentous day, Charlotte still did not quite comprehend why the Count wished to marry her. It was clear to her what the benefits of the match must be to herself - a wealthy and noble husband, with unique expertise in combating her peculiar disease - but to the Count? Other than an altruistic regard for the difficult position in which she found herself, the Count's motives were a mystery.
Vladimir. She rolled the sound on her tongue. It was exotic, unusual; she still did not feel quite comfortable addressing the Count by his first name, but she supposed that she would get used to it.
As Charlotte neared the altar, she caught a dark glance upon her. Her lips tightened. Bess, the Count’s sister, sat among the bride’s family, since she and her brother had none of their own in England. As usual, her gown was cut so as to be far too revealing of her lush charms. Her smile verged on a snarl. Bess did not approve of this marriage – in fact, Charlotte knew, she was bitterly jealous. Her own mordant passions were fixed on the Count, although she thought nothing amiss in keeping the Vicar of Little Spalding dangling after her as well; two men were scarcely enough, no doubt. Oddly, this had strengthened Charlotte’s resolve to marry the Count: if there was one thing that Charlotte was especially glad of, it was the opportunity to thwart the affections of that shameless hussy.
Beside Bess sat Oswald Fairbrother, trussed up in a coat that looked too small for his bullish frame. Compared with Bess’s sultry magnificence he looked distinctly out of place. Sitting sternly upright on Oswald's other side was Charlotte's Aunt Augusta, uncomfortable in a tight plum-coloured gown and a large feathered hat. Her aunt detested weddings, believing them to be symbolic of both female frivolity and the oppression of womankind by the male sex. Charlotte lowered her eyes behind the veil, and walked on.
As she came to stand beside him, the Count turned towards her. His eyes - those striking, storm-blue eyes that from the first had captured her attention – were lit with something which, if she had not known only too well her own lack of good looks – could easily be mistaken for admiration. It was probably, Charlotte reminded herself, on account of the dress; she must not allow herself to be taken in, like a silly romantic goose, and imagine that a man such as the Count could feel any more than a platonic affection towards her.
With relief, she took her hand from the Bad Duke’s crooked arm and laid it instead on the arm of her future husband. He gave it a gentle squeeze, and smiled down, his look piercing the veil. No, she could not mistake that expression – it was admiration. How strange!
A solemn hush fell upon the congregation, as the Bishop of London settled his robes and cleared his throat.
“We are gathered here today to witness the marriage of Lady Charlotte Lucretia Isobel Honore Debenham-Chalmers, and Count Vladimir Henri Stanislav Saxe-Coburg Dragenhof...”
Standing close to the Count, Charlotte felt a slow heat radiating from his body, as if she stood by a fire. Catching his eye, she felt a tremor go fleeting from her heart to her knees, and blushed. This was not a real marriage, she reminded herself once more. The Count himself had assured her, with the utmost delicacy, that he intended to make no demands of a physical nature. She quelled the unseemly feelings that rose within her, and composed her face to a suitably attentive expression.
The Bishop’s words washed over her like waves on a pebbled shore, scarcely heard.
“...and marriage is so ordained, to bring comfort to man and to woman....for as the Holy St Augustine said, it is better to marry than to burn...and as we read in Genesis 2.18, 'And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him an helpmeet for him'..."
She wished she had not allowed Fanny to pull her corsets so tight, especially since she had to stand so long in one place. She shifted her feet in their ivory satin slippers, and wriggled her toes. The shoes were too small. She would have blisters before long.
At last the Bishop’s peroration came to an end. The crowd took an audible breath, exchanging whispered comments, blowing delicate noses, and clearing throats. A quick glance up into the Count’s face told Charlotte that he had found the homily as tedious as she had. If only Mama had permitted the wedding to be a small, family affair, like her own – it could have taken place in St Edgar’s in Little Spalding, and then Oswald could have conducted it. She was sure he would not have been quite so long-winded! She heard a ripple of chatter break out, and the distinctive high-pitched sneeze of her Mama, like a poodle who has breathed in a butterfly.
The Bishop leaned down towards them, fixing the couple with a not particularly kindly gaze. He was a man of about sixty, generously proportioned under his long robes, and with eyebrows of a surpassing thickness. He much preferred funerals to weddings, and sitting at home drinking port to either.
“Do you, Charlotte, take this man, Vladimir, to be your wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to obey, till death do you part, according to God's holy ordinance, and thereto pledge your faith to him?”
“I do,” she said, startling herself with the loudness of her own voice. She raised her hand to her veil self-consciously.
“Do you, Vladimir, take this woman, Charlotte, to be your wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part, according to God's holy ordinance, and thereto pledge your faith to her?”
“I do.” His voice was sure and clear. Charlotte’s heart lifted. In a few minutes, it would all be over. She would be a married woman – a state for which she had waited her entire life, it seemed. She would never have to round a corner to find the Duke bestowing his inappropriate affections on her mother – or more often some chambermaid – again. She would have her own home, and servants, and...
“Then, if there be no legal impediment to this marriage, I now declare...”
The hushed expectancy of five hundred souls was broken by loud, firm footsteps, striding down the stone-flagged aisle.
“Wait! There is an impediment!”
There was a collective intake of breath. Society, as one, turned about in its seat and stared - as did Charlotte, mouth open, frozen in surprise. The Count turned slowly, but did not relinquish Charlotte’s hand; rather, he held it more firmly in his.
The Bishop drew himself up and glared at the intruder from under his considerable brows. He was not used to these kinds of interruptions. This sort of thing, he thought sourly, might be all very well in Gothic fiction, but in real life, such dramatic entrances were quite unnecessary. If someone wished to make an objection to a marriage, they had ample time to do so when the banns were called and the event announced in the Gazette - rather than at the very last moment. That, he reflected, is what comes of marrying a foreigner.
Through the welcome screen of her veil, Charlotte turned and peered, like everyone else, at the man now sauntering towards the altar. Her husband-to-be's countenance was quietly pleasing - but the stranger’s visage was strikingly beautiful. His dark blonde hair, cut a little longer than fashion dictated in England, hung straight as burnt gold over arresting features – a classically straight nose, perfectly carved lips, and brilliant green eyes that seemed almost lit from within. Skin of a most startling whiteness completed the picture. Though she felt faint with shock and tight lacing, Charlotte could not help but acknowledge the sheer beauty of the man.
Taller than the Count by several inches – though the Count was a tall man – the stranger paused at the mid-point of the central aisle, threw the Count a triumphant glance, and turned to face his audience, for all the world like a showman about to introduce an act of dazzling theatre.
“Honoured ladies and gentlemen,” he began, in an accent far more distinctly eastern European than the Count’s own, “I am mortified to be the cause of this interruption to what was to be a so happy and glorious occasion, but,“ he paused and looked about him with the air of one who must impart tragic news, “I could not live with my conscience were I to allow this ceremony to go forward, knowing...what I know...about the groom.”
Charlotte felt an icy hand clutch at her heart. She felt ready to sink to the floor, but for the strong hand of the Count, supporting her as they stood. Was this stranger – before all these people, the cream of London society – about to reveal the awful truth, that both she and Vladimir were vampyres? A moment's reflection reassured her. Surely he could not do so – he would be laughed out of England! For no one – but for Charlotte, Oswald, the Count, and Bess – knew that vampyres even existed. In lurid tales, yes – but certainly not in modern, nineteenth century London! He would be taken away to an asylum forthwith.
She cast a brief, questioning look towards the Count, but he was calm as ever as he listened to the intruder continue.
“No, ladies and gentleman - on my honour and conscience, I could not allow that this should happen. For in fact, this gentleman – the so-called Count of Saxe-Coburg Dragenhof – is nothing of the kind. He is not even of noble blood.” The stranger paused again, clearly enjoying the manner in which the assembled guests hung upon his every word. His eyes glittered with mischief. "He is - "
At that moment, Charlotte, overcome by a combination of nerves, fright and lack of air, did what was for her a most unusual thing – and quite fainted away.