Anchored in fact on both sides of history, Laura and Ida, modern rationalist and fin de siècle occultist, are linked from the moment Ida channels Laura into the body of celebrated beauty and Irish freedom-fighter Maud Gonne. When Laura falls—from an ocean and a hundred years away—passionately, Victorianly in love with the young poet W. B. Yeats, their love affair entwines with Irish history and weaves through Yeats’s poetry until Ida discovers something she wants more than magic in the subterranean spaces in between.
Ida took a silent moment to assess her situation, before beginning to curse.
Her feet were over her head. The trailing nightdress which had tripped her and launched her headlong tumble down the servants’ backstairs, was likewise aloft. It had been her intention to spend some of her night in such a posture, but not alone at the bottom of an uncarpeted flight of stairs.
Ida pressed her unbroken hand to the quiet stairwell’s cold floor and pushed against it, swearing steadily. Maud did not plunge down stairs. But when she wrote to Ida of her new “spiritual marriage” to Mr. Yeats, Ida had raced from Paris, leaving her house and studies with more haste than planning. None the less, if her trip (despite her fall) bore the ripe red fruit she hoped, and Maud’s astral nuptials were enough for Will Yeats’s erotic love to open the vortex between planes, Ida’s daemon lover might, this very night, take possession of anyone she could find to make physical love to her. She understood the magic.
Ida took a careful, aching shuffle toward the final flight of stairs, but stopped when she heard whistling. Damn the fool and her dancehall tune coming in past curfew. And damn Ida, too, for her woman’s form. If she were a man, the maid downstairs, caught between dismissal and the chance to win ten shillings on her back, would be easily coaxed upstairs. And if not, a man could still take what Ida sought. But not tonight. Tonight her selection must be willing, open to suggestion, and able, once mesmerized, to send his soul away. No matter. Ida had a lifetime’s skill of using what little beauty she possessed. Once on the street, an unbuttoned coat over her nightdress and her loosened hair would be enough to draw a gentleman to the aid of a sleepwalking woman. Ungentlemanly opportunism would accomplish the rest.
The whistle faded into the pantry, doubtless foraging for a bite of cold dinner. Ida leaned against the stair wall and extended a leg in silent descent. Her knee knifed pain through her hip into her belly, locked, and completely gave way. Ida catapulted down the stairs into the kitchen.
“Who is there?”
A glint of blade in the black scullery and the growled question in nearly flawless English revealed the night whistler as male, but Ida’s attempt at her own name issued from her lips as a dull moan. A match scratched and set against a wick, spit, and lit a man’s rugged face.
“I said, who is there?”
Still unable to speak, Ida tasted the blood-filled space between her teeth and cheek and watched the cruel shadow steal across the kitchen on silent feet behind his raised candle and knife. Mayhap this was how all foreign criminals fed themselves, stealing into the sleeping kitchens of decent English houses.
The thief belted his knife and knelt beside her with a fluidity that returned Ida’s voice with a scream. Or with the beginning of one, stifled by his sudden, smothering palm. “Shhhh,” he cautioned in a low whiskey whisper.
Ida nodded consent.
He took his fingers from her lips and wiped the blood from them on his breeches. “Can you sit?” he whispered.
Ida nodded again, but before she could struggle upright, her body was banded by oaken arms and hoisted aloft. In two silent strides, the burglar carried her to the kitchen’s long table. He kicked a chair out and seated Ida unceremoniously, catching her shoulders to hold her. “Are you steady?” He crouched before her.
Ida tried to smile.
Without warning, his large hands shifted from her shoulder, to run, surprisingly nimble, bold and deft across her body. He handled her feet and knees, twisted her wrists, stopping when she winced, and prodding the pads of her palms. He reached boldly into her hair and felt across her scalp. He poked a finger into her mouth and Ida jerked away with a squeak. He raised a menacing eyebrow and reached again between her lips. They gapped open around the digit’s formidable girth, and he ran it without pressure against the fronts of her teeth.
“Would you care to tell me why a lady of your position slips down the servants’ stairs at two o’clock in the morning, madam?”
“I’ll scream,” Ida threatened.
“No you won’t.” He sat back on his heels with an insolent grin. “You are escaping a reputable address, undressed, at a disreputable hour. You are late to meet a lover who has taken rooms close by.”
From between a rough-stubbled jaw and hanging forelock, a pair of fierce eyes combed Ida’s face. The subtle trace of accent was Russian, she decided. “Your husband—an upstanding and prosperous man, no doubt—is in your bed upstairs, and you can no longer bear the smell and the sound of his sleeping. You are out of bed only to be away from him.”
Ida stifled a laugh and shook her head.
“Invent a more entertaining lie while I fetch my supper,” he instructed, and vanished into the pantry with uncanny speed. He returned with a hunk of the evening’s cold mutton and a bottle which he unstoppered, swigged, and passed to Ida. “You’ve no bones broken, but this will do you good all the same.” He bit into the meat with savage teeth. “Talk.”
“I must have been sleepwalking,” Ida murmured.
“Sleepwalkers don’t stop for coats.”
“I awoke from sleeping and realized I had left a case downstairs.”
He laughed. “You’re a very dull liar. If you had wanted any decent thing, you would have rung. There are only two reasons to fetch for yourself what others can carry to you, and they’re two blades of the same knife. Is it shame or pride, Madam, driving you abroad so stealthy and late?”
Unable to meet his bold eyes, Ida took a drink from the bottle and gasped as the liquor touched the raw, bitten places in her mouth. Her eyes filled with tears and she swallowed with a gulp, blood and whiskey mingling her father’s smells and her uncle’s tastes.
She stood up and wobbled. She would have fallen, but the thief caught her once again.
She looked up into the dark at him and cursed her blindness.
He whistled softly. “I’ve never heard a lady swear so well.”
Ida swooned against his heavy, wide chest, and enjoyed the strong arm moving to cradle her again. One of her more artful faints, it dropped her cloak from her shoulder and opened the neck of her nightdress. A slight adjustment, masked by a fevered moan, pushed her breasts into better view.
How could she have doubted her daemon would provide? He had chosen for himself this massive specimen of masculinity. Ida had been a fool, wasting time trying to escape him to the streets.
“I cannot say I do not appreciate the offer,” he said with a new edge in his gruff whisper, “but you won’t need to ransom your freedom from me. I didn’t mean to keep you past the point I knew you were unhurt enough to leave.”
Ida stayed fainted, but let her limp body press against him below where his belt was slung.
“Enough of that.” He dumped her onto the chair again. “I did not mean to drive you to such desperate measures. You need not tell me anything. Go. I will not try to stop you.”
“Don’t you dare believe you held me against my will!” Ida glared at the towering man and took another gulp of whiskey. She held it in her mouth, and let her eyes fill up with tears, the yellow fire licking her tongue’s raw places, searing them with rage and doubt.
“Were you going out for gin?”
Ida nodded and let a tear run down her cheek.
“Drink up then, cherie. I would not hold that against you.”
Ida tipped the bottle to her lips again and drank. She extended it to the tower of man standing over her. He sat and drank, swallowing the flaming amber easily.
“You’re still lying,” he observed.
“Yes,” she said at last.
“Why did you offer yourself to me just now?”
Ida laughed without sound. “Because I wanted to.”
One harsh eyebrow rose in surprise, but he did not accuse her of lying again. Slowly, the other brow joined it. He leaned forward in his chair. “Was it a man then, you were going out to find?”
The whistle came again, deep and slow.
“I have been married to the same man for too many years.”
“And you ventured out tonight for one who was not your husband.”
“You should be going then.”
Ida masked her surprise with a coquette’s smile. “You are not my husband,” she observed.
“I am not. But I am more than not just one man.”
“Of course,” she sneered. “You must be the hunter, the seducer, and all your conquests come—pure and persuaded, almost unwilling—to your bed.” Ida stood up, and when her legs weakened, she steadied herself with a hand on the rough table. “You may read your stories of women who give their bodies freely, in pursuit of their own pleasure, but you, in truth, would fear such a maenad.”
He stood slowly, exaggerating the difference in their heights and strength. “You have lied to and insulted me. I should put you out of doors like a yowling tomcat to find what you need tonight, but you are too bruised to walk and haven’t the sense to avoid murdering.” In an easy swoop, he gathered Ida into his powerful arms and started up the backstairs with her. At the first landing, he set her on her battered feet.
“What is your name?”
“Ida Jameson Rowley.”
“Had you lied, I would have left you here.”
Instead, he took Ida’s face in his huge hands and kissed her with a deliberate and insistent mouth. Not a hurried kiss, nor the furtive mouthing of her husband. The thief’s long and thorough exploration made Ida’s lips want to answer, and without willing it, her battered mouth responded, her tongue tasting cold flesh and whiskey.
Then she was in the air against his chest again, the steps swimming past, two at a time, beneath her. His rough stubble brushed her cheek, his voice spoke hot in her ear. “What room is yours, Madam Rowley?”
“Four,” she said against his neck.
The thief strode to Ida’s door and put her down again. She leaned against the jamb and waited, afraid he might depart, but after listening to the silent hall, he turned the knob and walked into her rooms. Ida tottered after him.
He prodded the dying fire and seated himself in the best chair beside it.
“Take your coat off, Ida Jameson Rowley,” he whispered.
Ida let it fall to the floor.
“Why are you in London?”
“I am visiting a friend.”
“Open your nightdress.”
Ida’s stiff fingers worked slowly, unbuttoning down to her navel the stiff white cotton.
“Is your friend the woman in the room next door?”
“Put your hands on either side of your nightdress and show yourself to me.”
Ida’s hands moved of their own volition, curling around the cloth, pulling it open. “You heard her sex cries through your wall?”
Ida opened her eyes and stared at him. How did he know of the noises Maud made?
“I have Russian hearing,” he said with an easy smile. “Take that terrible thing off.”
The buttons and ruffles fell to the ground, eliciting a low rumble of appreciation from the mysterious blaggard [CE1] [AU2] Ida was no longer certain she was seducing. Her arms felt extraneous. She clasped her hands before her as she had been taught to stand for singing. His eyes caressed her naked breasts, and Ida swayed, dizzy with the pleasure of it.