"I'm relieved to hear it," he murmured. He gave the rabbit a sniff. "It smel s delicious." While he was bent over his plate, the heat from the rabbit amplified his distinctive scent of cinnamon and clove. Matthew forked up a bit of the chestnut biscuit. As it traveled to his mouth, his eyes widened. "Chestnuts?"
"Nothing but chestnuts, olive oil, and a bit of baking powder."
"And salt. And water, rosemary, and pepper," he commented calmly, taking another bite of the biscuit.
"Given your dietary restrictions, it's a good thing you can figure out exactly what you're putting in your mouth," I grumbled jokingly.
With most of the meal behind us, I began to relax. We chatted about Oxford while I cleared the plates and brought cheese, berries, and roasted chestnuts to the table.
"Help yourself," I said, putting an empty plate in front of him. Matthew savored the aroma of the tiny strawberries and sighed happily as he picked up a chestnut.
"These real y are better warm," he observed. He cracked the hard nut easily in his fingers and popped the meat out of the shel . The nutcracker hanging off the edge of the bowl was clearly optional equipment with a vampire at the table.
"What do I smel like?" I asked, toying with the stem of my wineglass.
For a few moments, it seemed as though he wasn't going to answer. The silence stretched thin before he turned wistful eyes on me. His lids fel , and he inhaled deeply.
"You smel of wil ow sap. And chamomile that's been crushed underfoot." He sniffed again and smiled a smal , sad smile. "There's honeysuckle and fal en oak leaves, too," he said softly, breathing out, "along with witch hazel blooming and the first narcissus of spring. And ancient things-horehound, frankincense, lady's mantle. Scents I thought I'd forgotten."
His eyes opened slowly, and I looked into their gray depths, afraid to breathe and break the spel his words had cast.
"What about me?" he asked, his eyes holding on to mine.
"Cinnamon." My voice was hesitant. "And cloves.
Sometimes I think you smel of carnations-not the kind in the florist shops but the old-fashioned ones that grow in English cottage gardens."
"Clove pinks," Matthew said, his eyes crinkling at the corners in amusement. "Not bad for a witch."
I reached for a chestnut. Cupping the nut in my palms, I rol ed it from one hand to the other, the warmth traveling up my suddenly chil y arms.
Matthew sat back in his chair again, surveying my face with little flicks of his eyes. "How did you decide what to serve for dinner tonight?" He gestured at the berries and nuts that were left from the meal.
"Wel , it wasn't magic. The zoology department helped a lot," I explained.
He looked startled, then roared with laughter. "You asked the zoology department what to make me for dinner?"
"Not exactly," I said defensively. "There were raw-food recipes on the Net, but I got stuck after I bought the meat.
They told me what gray wolves ate."
Matthew shook his head, but he was stil smiling, and my irritation dissolved. "Thank you," he said simply. "It's been a very long time since someone made me a meal."
"You're welcome. The wine was the worst part."
Matthew's eyes brightened. "Speaking of wine," he said, standing up and folding his napkin, "I brought us something to have after dinner."
He asked me to fetch two fresh glasses from the kitchen.
An old, slightly lopsided bottle was sitting on the table when I returned. It had a faded cream label with simple lettering and a coronet. Matthew was working the corkscrew careful y into a cork that was crumbly and black with age.
His nostrils flared when he pul ed it free, his face taking on the look of a cat in secure possession of a delectable canary. The wine that came out of the bottle was syrupy, its golden color glinting in the light of the candles.
"Smel it," he commanded, handing me one of the glasses, "and tel me what you think."
I took a sniff and gasped. "It smel s like caramels and berries," I said, wondering how something so yel ow could smel of something red.
Matthew was watching me closely, interested in my reactions. "Take a sip," he suggested.
The wine's sweet flavors exploded in my mouth. Apricots and vanil a custard from the kitchen ladies tumbled across my tongue, and my mouth tingled with them long after I'd swal owed. It was like drinking magic.
"What is this?" I final y said, after the taste of the wine had faded.
"It was made from grapes picked a long, long time ago.
That summer had been hot and sunny, and the farmers worried that the rains were going to come and ruin the crop.
But the weather held, and they got the grapes in just before the weather changed."
"You can taste the sunshine," I said, earning myself another beautiful smile.
"During the harvest a comet blazed over the vineyards. It had been visible through astronomers' telescopes for months, but in October it was so bright you could almost read by its light. The workers saw it as a sign that the grapes were blessed."
"Was this in 1986? Was it Hal ey's comet?"
Matthew shook his head. "No. It was 1811." I stared in astonishment at the almost two-hundred-year-old wine in my glass, fearing it might evaporate before my eyes.
"Hal ey's comet came in 1759 and 1835." He pronounced the name "Hawley."
"Where did you get it?" The wine store by the train station did not have wine like this.
"I bought it from Antoine-Marie as soon as he told me it was going to be extraordinary," he said with amusement.
Turning the bottle, I looked at the label. Chateau Yquem.
Even I had heard of that.
"And you've had it ever since," I said. He'd drunk chocolate in Paris in 1615 and received a building permit from Henry VI I in 1536-of course he was buying wine in 1811. And there was the ancient-looking ampul a he was wearing around his neck, the cord visible at his throat.
"Matthew," I said slowly, watching him for any early warning signs of anger. "How old are you?"
His mouth hardened, but he kept his voice light. "I'm older than I look."
"I know that," I said, unable to curb my impatience.
"Why is my age important?"
"I'm a historian. If somebody tel s me he remembers when chocolate was introduced into France or a comet passing overhead in 1811, it's difficult not to be curious about the other events he might have lived through. You were alive in 1536-I've been to the house you had built.
Did you know Machiavel i? Live through the Black Death?
Attend the University of Paris when Abelard was teaching there?"
He remained silent. The hair on the back of my neck started to prickle.
"Your pilgrim's badge tel s me you were once in the Holy Land. Did you go on crusade? See Hal ey's comet pass over Normandy in 1066?"
"Watch Charlemagne's coronation? Survive the fal of Carthage? Help keep Attila from reaching Rome?"
Matthew held up his right index finger. "Which fal of Carthage?"
"You tel me!"
"Damn you, Hamish Osborne," he muttered, his hand flexing on the tablecloth. For the second time in two days, Matthew struggled over what to say. He stared into the candle, drawing his finger slowly through the flame. His flesh erupted into angry red blisters, then smoothed itself out into white, cold perfection an instant later without a flicker of pain evident on his face.
"I believe that my body is nearly thirty-seven years of age.
I was born around the time Clovis converted to Christianity.
My parents remembered that, or I'd have no idea. We didn't keep track of birthdays back then. It's tidier to pick the date of five hundred and be done with it." He looked up at me, briefly, and returned his attention to the candles. "I was reborn a vampire in 537, and with the exception of Attila- who was before my time-you've touched on most of the high and low points in the mil ennium between then and the year I put the keystone into my house in Woodstock.
Because you're a historian, I feel obligated to tel you that Machiavel i was not nearly as impressive as you al seem to think he was. He was just a Florentine politician-and not a terribly good one at that." A note of weariness had crept into his voice.
Matthew Clairmont was more than fifteen hundred years old.
"I shouldn't pry," I said by way of apology, unsure of where to look and mystified as to what had led me to think that knowing the historical events this vampire had lived through would help me know him better. A line from Ben Jonson floated into my mind. It seemed to explain Matthew in a way that the coronation of Charlemagne could not. "'He was not of an age, but for all time,'" I murmured.
"'With thee conversing I forget all time,'" he responded, traveling further into seventeenth-century literature and offering up a line from Milton.
We looked at each other for as long as we could stand it, working another fragile spel between us. I broke it.
"What were you doing in the fal of 1859?"
His face darkened. "What has Peter Knox been tel ing you?"
"That you were unlikely to share your secrets with a witch." My voice sounded calmer than I felt.
"Did he?" Matthew said softly, sounding less angry than he clearly was. I could see it in the set of his jaw and shoulders. "In September 1859 I was looking through the manuscripts in the Ashmolean Museum."
"Why, Matthew?" Please tell me, I urged silently, crossing my fingers in my lap. I'd provoked him into revealing the first part of his secret but wanted him to freely give me the rest. No games, no riddles. Just tell me.
"I'd recently finished reading a book manuscript that was soon going to press. It was written by a Cambridge naturalist." Matthew put down his glass.
My hand flew to my mouth as the significance of the date registered. "Origin. " Like Newton's great work of physics, the Principia, this was a book that did not require a ful citation. Anyone who'd passed high-school biology knew Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
"Darwin's article the previous summer laid out his theory of natural selection, but the book was quite different. It was marvelous, the way he established easily observable changes in nature and inched you toward accepting something so revolutionary."
"But alchemy has nothing to do with evolution." Grabbing the bottle, I poured myself more of the precious wine, less concerned that it might vanish than that I might come unglued.
"Lamarck believed that each species descended from different ancestors and progressed independently toward higher forms of being. It's remarkably similar to what your alchemists believed-that the philosopher's stone was the elusive end product of a natural transmutation of base metals into more exalted metals like copper, silver, and gold." Matthew reached for the wine, and I pushed it toward him.
"But Darwin disagreed with Lamarck, even if he did use the same word-'transmutation'-in his initial discussions of evolution."
"He disagreed with linear transmutation, it's true. But Darwin's theory of natural selection can stil be seen as a series of linked transmutations."
Maybe Matthew was right and magic real y was in everything. It was in Newton's theory of gravity, and it might be in Darwin's theory of evolution, too.
"There are alchemical manuscripts al over the world." I was trying to remain moored to the details while coming to terms with the bigger picture. "Why the Ashmole manuscripts?"
"When I read Darwin and saw how he seemed to explore the alchemical theory of transmutation through biology, I remembered stories about a mysterious book that explained the origin of our three species-daemons, witches, and vampires. I'd always dismissed them as fantastic." He took a sip of wine. "Most suggested that the story was concealed from human eyes in a book of alchemy. The publication of Origin prompted me to look for it, and if such a book existed, Elias Ashmole would have bought it. He had an uncanny ability to find bizarre manuscripts."
"You were looking for it here in Oxford, one hundred and fifty years ago?"
"Yes," Matthew said. "And one hundred and fifty years before you received Ashmole 782, I was told that it was missing."
My heart sped up, and he looked at me in concern.
"Keep going," I said, waving him on.
"I've been trying to get my hands on it ever since. Every other Ashmole manuscript was there, and none seemed promising. I've looked at manuscripts in other libraries-at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Germany, the Bibliotheque Nationale in France, the Medici Library in Florence, the Vatican, the Library of Congress."
I blinked, thinking of a vampire wandering the hal ways of the Vatican.
"The only manuscript I haven't seen is Ashmole 782. By simple process of elimination, it must be the manuscript that contains our story-if it stil survives."
"You've looked at more alchemical manuscripts than I have."
"Perhaps," Matthew admitted, "but it doesn't mean I understand them as wel as you do. What al the manuscripts I've seen have in common, though, is an absolute confidence that the alchemist can help one substance change into another, creating new forms of life."
"That sounds like evolution," I said flatly.
"Yes," Matthew said gently, "it does."
We moved to the sofas, and I curled up into a bal at the end of one while Matthew sprawled in the corner of the other, his long legs stretched out in front of him. Happily, he'd brought the wine. Once we were settled, it was time for more honesty between us.
"I met a daemon, Agatha Wilson, at Blackwel 's last week. According to the Internet, she's a famous designer.
Agatha told me the daemons believe that Ashmole 782 is the story of al origins-even human origins. Peter Knox told me a different story. He said it was the first grimoire, the source of al witches' power. Knox believes that the manuscript contains the secret of immortality," I said, glancing at Matthew, "and how to destroy vampires. I've heard the daemon and witch versions of the story-now I want yours."
"Vampires believe the lost manuscript explains our longevity and our strength," he said. "In the past, our fear was that this secret-if it fel into witches' hands-would lead to our extermination. Some fear that magic was involved in our making and that the witches might find a way to reverse the magic and destroy us. It seems that that part of the legend might be true." He exhaled softly, looking worried.
"I stil don't understand why you're so certain that this book of origins-whatever it may contain-is hidden inside an alchemy book."
"An alchemy book could hide these secrets in plain sight -just like Peter Knox hides his identity as a witch under the veneer that he's an expert in the occult. I think it was vampires who learned that the book was alchemical. It's too perfect a fit to be coincidence. The human alchemists seemed to capture what it is to be a vampire when they wrote about the philosopher's stone. Becoming a vampire makes us nearly immortal, it makes most of us rich, and it gives us the chance to accrue unimaginable knowledge and learning."
"That's the philosopher's stone, al right." The paral els between this mythic substance and the creature sitting opposite me were striking-and chil ing. "But it's stil hard to imagine such a book real y exists. For one thing, al the stories contradict one another. And who would be so foolish as to put so much information in one place?"
"As with the legends about vampires and witches, there's at least a nugget of truth in al the stories about the manuscript. We just have to figure out what that nugget is and strip away the rest. Then we'l begin to understand."
Matthew's face bore no trace of deceit or evasion.
Encouraged by his use of "we," I decided he'd earned more information.
"You're right about Ashmole 782. The book you've been seeking is inside it."
"Go on," Matthew said softly, trying to control his curiosity.
"It's an alchemy book on the surface. The images contain errors, or deliberate mistakes-I stil can't decide which." I bit my lip in concentration, and his eyes fixed on the place where my teeth had drawn a tiny bead of blood to the surface.
"What do you mean 'it's an alchemy book on the surface'?" Matthew held his glass closer to his nose.
"It's a palimpsest. But the ink hasn't been washed away.
Magic is hiding the text. I almost missed the words, they're hidden so wel . But when I turned one of the pages, the light was at just the right angle and I could see lines of writing moving underneath."
"Could you read it?"
"No." I shook my head. "If Ashmole 782 contains information about who we are, how we came to be, and how we might be destroyed, it's deeply buried."
"It's fine if it remains buried," Matthew said grimly, "at least for now. But the time is quickly coming when we wil need that book."
"Why? What makes it so urgent?"
"I'd rather show you than tel you. Can you come to my lab tomorrow?"
I nodded, mystified.
"We can walk there after lunch," he said, standing up and stretching. We had emptied the bottle of wine amid al this talk of secrets and origins. "It's late. I should go."
Matthew reached for the doorknob and gave it a twist. It rattled, and the catch sprang open easily.
He frowned. "Have you had trouble with your lock?"
"No," I said, pushing the mechanism in and out, "not that I'm aware of."
"You should have them look at that," he said, stil jiggling the door's hardware. "It might not close properly until you do."
When I looked up from the door, an emotion I couldn't name flitted across his face.
"I'm sorry the evening ended on such a serious note," he said softly. "I did have a lovely time."
"Was the dinner real y al right?" I asked. We'd talked about the secrets of the universe, but I was more worried about how his stomach was faring.
"It was more than al right," he assured me.
My face softened at his beautiful, ancient features. How could people walk by him on the street and not gasp?
Before I could stop myself, my toes were gripping the old rug and I was stretching up to kiss him quickly on the cheek.
His skin felt smooth and cold like satin, and my lips felt unusual y warm against his flesh.
Why did you do that? I asked myself, coming down off my toes and gazing at the questionable doorknob to hide my confusion.
It was over in a matter of seconds, but as I knew from using magic to get Notes and Queries off the Bodleian's shelf, a few seconds was al it took to change your life.
Matthew studied me. When I showed no sign of hysteria or an inclination to make a run for it, he leaned toward me and kissed me slowly once, twice in the French manner.
His face skimmed over mine, and he drank in my scent of wil ow sap and honeysuckle. When he straightened, Matthew's eyes looked smokier than usual.
"Good night, Diana," he said with a smile.
Moments later, leaning against the closed door, I spied the blinking number one on my answering machine.
Merciful y, the machine's volume was turned down.
Aunt Sarah wanted to ask the same question I'd asked myself.
I just didn't want to answer.