V. No Pleasure at All
Instead of taking the back staircase, as he normally would, Sascha was instead met outside his father’s study by a butler, who escorted him along the well-furnished passage that led to the top of the main stair. As they approached the door, he began to hear sounds from the other side – music, and people talking. The butler held it open for him, and he stepped out onto the landing, at the top of the stair. The room below was packed with people – men in suits with slicked-back hair, women in long, thin dresses bedecked with jewellery. Some of them were smoking, something Sascha had never seen before, and all of them were holding drinks and talking very loudly. And then there was the sheer number of them – Sascha didn’t think he’d ever seen so many people together in one place. There must have been over a hundred.
Sascha was so stunned by the spectacle before him that he took a little while to notice that the butler who had shown him in was still at his shoulder, and had just coughed politely, as if to attract attention. He wondered what for. Then, as a hush descended on the room and the heads of the guests began to turn, he realised too late what the butler was about to say:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Master Sascha Faustus.”
In that instant, the hush became absolute silence, and Sascha felt every gaze come to rest on him, as room waited for him to speak. But suddenly Sascha couldn’t even move, let alone address a room full of important, dangerous people. He felt like was made of ice, except that the ice was melting, or maybe those were beads of sweat clinging to his forehead. ‘Tell them nothing’, his father had said, but also ‘Make a good impression’. How was he supposed to do both? After what felt like an eternity, he spoke.
“Good evening.” It wasn’t much, but it was enough to break the spell. The babble of conversation returned, and as the focus of attention left him Sascha found he could breathe again. But many of the people were still watching him out of the corners of their eyes, or casting quick looks over their half-empty glasses as they talked and smiled and laughed. Although he was unfrozen, the sick feeling that had troubled him in his father’s office had returned, and was worsening with every minute.
“So, you must be John’s boy.” Sascha jumped. He turned, coming face to face with a tall, gaunt woman with a very pale face. She wore a think black dress that clung to her bony hips, and had something white and furry draped across her shoulders. Sascha nodded, and opened his mouth to speak, but the woman got there first. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.” She said stiffly, her expression indicating no pleasure at all. “I am Baroness Redgrave, an acquaintance of your father’s.”
“It’s nice to meet you too.” Sascha managed, extending a hand which the Baroness ignored. She seemed to be assessing him, looking Sascha up and down in a way which was very disconcerting. He made a feeble stab at conversation. “I suppose you must have travelled-”
“You must excuse me.” She interrupted, “I require a drink. I’m sure I will have the delight of conversing with you at the dinner table.” And with that, she turned away, leaving Sascha feeling even more ill and heartily dreading the meal.
He looked around. No one seemed to be about to talk to him. Was that a good thing? Or was he expected to talk to people all evening? If so he would have to pick someone at random, because he didn’t recognise a single face. Sascha scanned the crowd, trying to spot someone who looked amiable and becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that he was standing around doing nothing and people would surely notice. In the end he went for a nervous-looking fat man who was standing in the corner with a glass of champagne.
“Good evening.” He said, uncertainly. The man jumped slightly, as if he had fervently been hoping he wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. Sascha could sympathise.
“Oh! Good evening, young man. You’re young master Faustus, am I right?”
“Ah, very nice to make your acquaintance. I am Baron Redgrave. You spoke to my wife just now.” Sascha tried not to let his eyes widen as he shook the Baron’s slightly sweaty hand, unable to imagine a more unlikely couple. The Baron was quite a short man, and on closer inspection he wasn’t as overweight as Sascha had thought – he simply bore it badly, standing in such a way that stretched his shirt and made his gut stick out. He was easier to talk to, however. Sascha managed to engage him in several minutes of stilted, uncomfortable conversation before another guest arrived. It was a woman, younger than Baroness Redgrave and wearing a scarlet flower in her hair, who quietly introduced herself and began to talk to the Baron. After that Sascha was able to stop talking and listen, which was an enormous relief.
From that point onwards he managed to drift from group to group, always staying with at least one person he had already been introduced to and never having to say very much at all. There was also music, which was a small blessing, and no dancing, which was a large one. By the time his father made an entrance and the guests settled down around the dinner table, Sascha was feeling almost calm. Unfortunately, his place was opposite the Redgraves, and the Baroness began cross-examining him almost from the moment they sat down.
“Do you study hard?” She asked. Sascha considered this question. It seemed innocent, if blunt, and he couldn’t think of a way to avoid it without appearing rude or lazy, so he answered.
“Yes. My tutors are very strict.” He thought this would please her. She seemed the type to be impressed by strict teaching. But the barrage of questions showed no sign of ceasing.
“Then he doesn’t teach you himself?”
“He does sometimes.”
“Ah, he gives you special lessons, does he? Does he teach you alchemy?” Sascha realised the conversation had very quickly moved into a dangerous area. He was beginning to understand his father’s warning now, although he still wasn’t sure why the Baroness was so interested in him.
“Yes.” He said simply, unable to think of a way to lie or change the subject.
“I see.” The Baroness nodded. With this she seemed to lapse into thought, and Sascha settled back into eating his soup, which was rather rich. However, the reprieve didn’t last long – as soon as the Baroness had cleared her bowl she launched into another round of interrogation.
“How much have you learned then? What has he taught you?” Sascha blinked, bewildered. These were almost certainly dangerous questions, the kind his father had told him not to answer. But how could he avoid it? Already Baroness Redgrave was staring at him, and he was sure she wasn’t the only one listening. Eventually, he rallied vagueness to his defence.
“We’ve been doing theory recently.” He was quite proud of this answer. To his mind it was quite impressive, and yet revealed nothing. But the Baroness’ next line of questioning was even worse.
“What kind of theory? Have you studied equivalent exchange, or the works of Agrippa?”
“I…” Luckily, Baroness Redgrave seemed incapable of waiting for an answer before coming up with a new question she would rather ask instead.
“And anyway, has he taught you nothing practical?” Sascha was baffled now. He wasn’t entirely sure what she meant.
“Yes boy, practical. Like the workings of the alchemical engine, for instance. Or summoning? Surely he must have taught you the laws of the undine by now? I was under the impression that all alchemists were able to call forth some form of water creature by the age of twelve. It’s practically an initiation for young alchemists like yourself.” But Sascha had no idea what she was taking about. Most of the terms she was using now he had never heard before, not once in either his lessons or any of the books had been given to study. He tried to think of a way to hide his incomprehension, knowing that his father wouldn’t want him to appear ignorant.
But you are ignorant, an angry little voice whispered, as if close to his ear, and whose fault is that? He looked up to the head of his table to where his father was sitting. He hasn’t taught you anything about real alchemy. He thinks you aren’t ready. This only paralysed him more. The realisation changed things; something would have to be done. But right now he couldn’t think what to say. It was then that Mr Rothschild came to his rescue.
“Good evening Sascha, I apologise for my lateness.” The tutor clapped him on the shoulder and settled into the empty seat at his left. “I was held up by some tedious paperwork, and it appears I have quite missed the starter.” Sascha was a little taken aback by his arrival. He would have thought Mr Rothschild completely out of place at such a stiff, formal occasion, but Mr Rothschild looked quite at ease in a light grey suit that wasn’t even patched at the elbows.
“That’s okay,” Sascha mumbled, “It wasn’t very nice.” In other circumstances, Mr Rothschild’s arrival might have allowed him to relax a little. As it was his mind was too busy reeling to settle on even the most comfortable of topics. However, Mr Rothschild’s safe and gentle banter (which was probably every bit as calculated as it appeared to be casual) did allow him to lapse into sullen silence, giving only basic responses such as ‘yes’ or ‘now’ every now and then.
The entire rest of the evening passed this way, with Mr Rothschild steering him through a blur of introductions and inane conversation which Sascha barely noticed. A part of him wanted to talk to Mr Rothschild about what had just happened and the thoughts racing through his head, but he knew there was no way he could share them. Not here, and not with a man that worked for his father. At the earliest point at which it was acceptable to retire he did, by which time he had formulated the beginnings of a plan.