They say that you never know where life’s path will take you. I don’t necessarily agree. After all, at every branch, you have a choice, and unless you are completely blind, or foolish, you can usually see some part of the way ahead. Of course, you don’t necessarily know what further choices might be down any particular branch until after you take it; and sometimes, you might look around and wonder how you got there, wonder what particular choice was the key one. Looking back, I made a choice on that first night in Bremerhaven. Little did I know then, how strange a path, how dark and dangerous a path that would eventually lead me on.
What I had told Capt. Bryson, on that first night aboard the Odiham Castle, was true. Since becoming engaged to Alexandra, I had put my youthful days, of drinking, debauchery and whoring, behind me. That said; I would not break my personal tradition of a wild night out with my crewmates on my first night in a new port, even if my drinking was more restrained than in the past. It was part of my ritual, and we who sail the seas are a superstitious bunch. And so it was that I spent the night touring the taverns of the city of Bremerhaven.
Towards the end of the evening, much as Capt. Bryson had predicted, we ended up in a place called the Blumengarten, supposedly the most reputable whorehouse in the city. Some of what befell that night, I recorded in my journal, but the rest, what came after, that was a tale I did not tell, save in the most abstract way. Not until I came to London. It was there that I met Brigitte, Comtesse Brigitte de Champagne, to give her full honour, the Prince of that city. I did not know much of our customs, but I knew, from what Katharina said in her letter, that I was obliged to introduce myself properly in any new city. I met her, by chance, at the London Café, when she came in on other business. It was later, at her elegant house in a quiet part of the city that she bad me tell her about my becoming, and about my sire…
“My sire?” I asked, being uncertain of what she intended by the term. She fixed me with a gaze so piercing that I could not pull myself away. Amusement glittered in her eyes for all that, and she smiled a beautiful smile, her porcelain face framed by the raven-black curls that frothed from her head and down to her shoulders.
“Your sire,” she said, sitting back in her armchair and making a steeple with her hands. “Tell me about the one who made you. Tell me about him, how you met, and how he came to embrace you.”
“Ah,” I said, “now I understand. Sorry, but I did not know the expression. I regret that, due to the circumstances of my making, I know very little of our customs.” She nodded, then stood and walked over to a mahogany cabinet. I watched as she produced two crystal glasses and a bottle, from which she poured something rich and red. My nose told me instantly what it was and I realised how hungry I was. She came back and sat down, handing me one of the glasses. I nodded my thanks and hid my amusement; for I had never had blood served this way before, having always taken it direct from the source. She nodded at me to continue.
“I suppose it started in early 1880. I had just received a substantial promotion to the role of Chief Purser, necessitating a transfer to the SS Odiham Castle, which was operating out of Harwich to the ports of Bremerhaven and Esbjerg. My first trip started at the beginning of March of that year. As had become my habit, indeed, ritual, I went ashore my first night in Bremerhaven, to tour the taverns and houses of ill-repute.” I looked up, expecting her disapproval, but she just laughed and told me to continue. “On my very first voyage with the company,” I explained, “I went ashore, this was in Rotterdam by the way, with assorted crewmates and spent a very wild night, carousing, drinking and ending up in some nameless whorehouse.” I paused as Brigitte put her glass down for a moment and laughed.
“Of course,” she said, still smiling, “what else would a sailor do when ashore in a strange port?” I nodded and continued.
“Indeed. I’m not particularly proud of that period of my life; spending so much of it drinking and whoring, but, I was young and foolish. I calmed down as I increased in rank and by the time I got to the Odiham Castle, it was pretty much behind me, although it had become somewhat of a ritual to at least go on a tour on my first night in a new place. By then, I was informally engaged to my childhood sweetheart, Alexandra and was hoping that his promotion would elevate me enough in her father’s eye to make that a formal engagement. Anyway, we made it to Bremerhaven and in due course, I went out on the town with some crewmates. Of course, we ended up in a whorehouse, in a place called the Blumengarten. I was intending only to stay for a few drinks until my colleagues had paired off with their girls and gone off to bed. As it turned out, I ended up not leaving until shortly before dawn.” I looked up at Brigitte and she motioned me to continue.
“Her name was Katharina. She was seated at a table talking with some of the girls. She didn’t appear to work there, but had a protective, motherly attitude to the girls. She was a magnificent sight, a huge mass of red curls and a very fine figure; for all that she seemed to be some years older than me. But, what got me was the intelligence that shone from her eyes. We got to talking, and pretty soon, it felt like we had been friends for years. The time flew by until she said she had to go, saying she needed to be home before sunrise. Of course, at the time, I attached no importance to that remark. I said my farewells and wandered back to the ship.” Brigitte smiled and poured me another glass.
“There was no reason why you should,” she said. “We don’t exactly go out of our way to advertise our nature.”
“Exactly,” I replied. “Not that I would have believed it had she told me. So, that pretty much became the pattern of my future visits to Bremerhaven. I would go to the Blumengarten and we would talk, while my colleagues pursued their ladies. I never intended it to be more than friendship, but by and by, we became closer, and eventually guilty lovers. Guilty, because, by the time this happened, I was married to Alexandra. We would go to her apartment after the girls had paired off, and she always sent me home before dawn. Of course, at the time, I just assumed she didn’t want to be seen having male visitors leaving in the morning. I knew she had been married, though long apart from her husband, and frankly, I didn’t care to ask too many questions.”
“What happened to change that?” asked Brigitte. I sighed and took another swig from my glass.
“Late in 1884, after we had been married three years, Alexandra became pregnant. This wasn’t the first time, but all previous times, she had miscarried very early. This time, it looked as though she might carry to term. It was a difficult pregnancy and Alexandra was not well for much of it. I spent every scrap of shore leave I could with her, and had arranged things such that I would be home at least two weeks before the due date. I was still on the Harwich to Bremerhaven run, but saw Katharina only briefly during that time. She understood how things were. As I said, it was a difficult pregnancy and Alex went into labour two weeks early. By the time I got home, it was too late. The baby survived, but, but my darling Alex died shortly after the birth.” For a moment, the grief of that moment welled up again and I stopped. Brigitte’s expression changed to one of sorrow and sympathy.
“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching out and patting my shoulder. I composed myself, managed to force a small smile and continued.
“Thank you,” I said. “I am afraid that I went to pieces after that. I crawled into the bottle and didn’t come out for a couple of weeks. My family took care of all the arrangements and somewhere in there, we decided that my brother and his wife should take the baby, Arthur, and raise him as their own. After a couple of weeks more, with help from my mother, I crawled back out of the bottle and, my compassionate leave being up, I went back to work.” I paused and took a mouthful from the crystal glass. “Being alone on board,” I continued, “brought some of the grief back, and all I could think of on the voyage to Bremerhaven, was being held in someone’s arms again. We arrived early in the afternoon. I sent my deputy out to do the trading; the captain understood; and went ashore early, thinking only to go find Katharina and find some solace there.” Brigitte nodded.
“Understandable,” she said.
“I realised I had little idea of what she did during the day. I went to the Blumengarten, just in case, but they avowed she was never there until evening. So, I made my way to Grazerstrasse, where she had her apartment. This took me a little time as I had only ever been there at night before. Perhaps I should have wondered about that, but then, I didn’t know the things I know now.” Brigitte laughed.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” she said, with a smile.
“Indeed. Anyway, I went there and knocked, but could get no answer. It occurred to me that I should maybe go in and surprise her when she got home. I knew she kept a spare key in an old aspidistra plant in the hallway, so I availed myself of that and let myself in.”
“Uh-oh!” said Brigitte, “I think I can see where this is heading.” I shrugged.
“That’s easy to say now; with all that wonderful hindsight. At the time, of course, I knew nothing.” I took another sip from the blood-filled glass. “It was dark, very dark, in the room. On previous visits I had noticed the very heavy drapes and curtains, but thought nothing of it. There was just enough light to see by, but not quite enough. I trod on something, and then a coal-scuttle full of assorted bits and pieces fell over, making a hell of a racket. I guess she had it set up as some sort of alarm system.” I paused, reliving the horror of that moment. Brigitte gestured at me to continue. “Everything after that is something of a blur. I remember a figure rising up from the bed, screeching and flailing at me; hands and teeth ripping at my flesh. The mass of red hair told me it was Katharina, but she did not seem to know me, for all that I was screaming my name. I just remember the intense pain and then nothing. I suppose I must have fainted.”