The characters of this ghost story have strong wills indeed. They have spilled over their allotted space and demanded a fourth part: so here is part three, and expect another tomorrow night at the same time. For part one of The Ilyasov Reflection, start here. For part two, read here.
Or, if you have been reading: now read on.
All night, Dylan researched. He forgot time and immersed himself in the gossipy entries of the St Petersburg Gazette, the Petersburg Sheet, ‘Novosti’ , ‘Golos’ and anything else he could lay his hands on. He followed the leads of the tattling society hostesses and tracked down their diaries, reading with increasing impatience for the few shreds of information he needed.
The stultifying social politics of St Petersburg in the final quarter of the 19th century were repugnant to him. The urgency of his task spurred him ever onwards but all these foolish women seemed to want to do with their recollections was to clog his head with irrelevance: who was marrying who, who had committed indiscretions, those at the top and base of society, those who had lost a fortune, and who had gained one.
Close by, in the bedroom, Meg was asleep. But the noises rarely ceased now: they were becoming stronger and more insistent, and Dylan’s skin crawled as he heard scuttling close by. On the floorboards of the bedroom perhaps, or behind the wardrobes. It was a small and very private hell. While Meg slept, seemingly so serene, she opened the door to the things behind the mirror.
They were in the house now.
Dylan did not dare to retrieve the mirror, though he had tried many times. Always, Meg was alert the moment he threatened it with the fire at the end of the garden. And though he did not know what she could do to stop him, she had the ability to grip him with a terror that was utterly irrational and totally immobilising.
So Dylan was fighting for Meg’s very existence in the only way he knew how; for someone else wanted her life now.
He made himself concentrate on the task in hand. It was simple to track down tales of the General and his successes. It seemed he was quite the celebrity for a short time, though his unfortunate social manners had lost him social approval almost as soon as his military skills had won it.
But there was no mention of any mirror. No hint of why the General might have something so dark in his possession to his dying day.
And then he found it. Tales of the disappearance of the General’s young wife. And as soon as he read it in The Voice, the story began to cascade into place.
No one knew where Lidiya Ilyasov had gone.
The wayward wife of General Ilyasov simply disappeared, from the very front line of polite Russian society; and though questions were asked, the woman’s reputation for devilry cast enough doubt on the situation to ensure that Ilyasov was never questioned as to whether he had had any part in her disappearance, and was simply sent out on another campaign.
He was a highly successful strategist. His wily, quick intelligence could outwit any enemy, it seemed. He was like some great gimlet-eyed spider from one of those fiendish old Russian tales. He schemed; he resourced; and then he waited, watchful but inanimate, for his victims to wander to the centre of his lair.
For years everyone thought he was homosexual. His only companions were male, and he seemed cantankerously uneasy with the opposite gender. He commanded respect and terror in equal measure from those men he met; they could recognize true evil when they saw it. It hung in the air around him. In him, all vestige of empathy had been replaced by an aesthetic love of killing. The army was the perfect place for him. Even the great Tsar himself had to battle to keep a light of fear out of his eyes when he spoke to Alexandr Ilyasov.
He was a great bear of a man, with lush dark hair and a face which the old babushkas used to say could turn milk sour. When their sons went off to join the military, all the mothers prayed that their precious son would not end up working for Ilyasov the Bear. One did not want to fall into the path of such a man.
And then, three years before the mysterious disappearance, a woman had strode imperiously across that web of his. And the great swarthy old spider turned its impassive simple eyes towards a hypnotic form, in evil his equal; or perhaps even his superior.
He was at a ball. There were too many of these things, he reflected idly to himself, as he stood with a glass of fine wine, contemplating the scene before him.
The room was filled with old women clucking like hens fat with gossip, spreading lies and half-truths and truths around the ballroom with not a clue which was which. He would watch these women, resplendent in fine cloth and dripping with jewels fit for someone half their age, brokering marriages and soothsaying births and deaths. Nothing was sacred to them, thought Ilyasov. They, like himself, were raptorial.
And those beautiful young women, the ones who outshone all the gems in the room: they would turn into the old clucking hens in time, he observed dispassionately. All it took was a few decades to thwart youth and replace it with disillusioned, scheming, meddling ambition.
And then she walked in. She turned heads immediately, but not initially for that jet-black hair or those insistent, almost aggressive features – perfect, symmetrical, predatory – but because whilst the rest of the young women glittered in all the colours of the rainbow, she wore black.
It was glittering black, lustrous black, of course; she had the tightest hourglass waist, a chest which could mesemrise a tsar housed in a bodice encrusted with gems, hips which swayed with fluid ease beneath the folds of expensive silk. Her form was perfect, though her choice of colour and predacious air put people uneasily in mind of nothing more than a witch.
They had all known her since childhood; she was the daughter of one of the local arms manufacturers and there was no shortage of money in the family . Lidiya had been schooled by the best governesses, and rid herself of more than one with her impertinence and governess-baiting. She had been approached by the very best social groups, with her impeccable credentials, yet had deliberately alienated herself; she shunned their company. She learned their secrets and used them with clever cruelty against them. She hurt many deeply, and always with a thirst to create more havoc and no feeling except a wild elation for the mayhem she had caused.
She was universally acknowledged to be a dangerous and Machiavellian creature, and her family tried all in its power to obtain a powerful husband for her, yet she foiled attempt after attempt; and as word of her vitriol spread, prospective husbands ceased to queue up to ask for her immaculate, yet paper-pale hand.
Yet whilst most women would have been dismayed at such a result. Lidiya Dumanovsky seemed triumphant. Perhaps she did not want a husband, though how any woman could gain advancement otherwise was beyond the ken of those who talked quietly as the pianos played in the salons of St Petersburg.
There had been talk for some time, of course. Her father could not keep his wayward daughter under control and she kept most strange company; for even in St Petersburg there were those who dabbled in the old occult ways of the Steppes. Some muttered that Scythian blood ran through her veins, that the girl had ancestry in the old land of Magog on the great Russian wastes, where they say Satan retired to lick his wounds after sparring with the Almighty himself.
She spent many extended evenings with those who were intent on reviving the complex cosmology of the Scythians, the fearless warriors-come-traders who lived in the Steppes before Jesus Christ was ever born.
Lidiya sought out those who knew of the fire goddess Tabiti, , Apia, goddess of the earth, Oetosyrus, god of the sun, Artimpasa ,goddess of the moon, and Thagimasadas, god of water.
She began to be seen out in the fashionable salons with strange amulets. And it was said by the supersticious that Lidiya had an army of Russian spirits at her beck and call.
Sometimes, if you could gain admittance to the magnificent Russian reception rooms of the Dumanovsky household, and sat with Lidiya to talk, they said you could hear the small Russian spirits scuffling in the wainscot and behind the bookcases and ornate cabinets. And if you stopped talking to listen with growing inquietitude to the capering of the little demons, she would throw her head back and laugh with the most musical peals of amusement one could think possible. Such sweet music; and yet her visitors came away, and would relate their experiences with wide eyes and dilated pupils – and would swear that if one of those scuttling demons had got beyond its station, and attacked a visitor; that Lydia Dumanovsky would have smiled widely whilst it devoured its victim, and never uttered a word to another living soul.
It was this beautiful, terrifying creature who walked into the ballroom and handed the great black hooded coat to the attendant. It has always been that evil glistens in such circumstances, and though they feared her, the eyes of every man followed her as she crossed the floor.
Had she researched her subject? Had she chosen the General long before he ever laid eyes on her? He seemed the only person in the room at ease with her, and the only person with whom she was interested in conversing. The two were disinterested in everything and everyone else in the place. And though the rest of society watched that night, they had no say in this deal done that night in a St Petersburg ballroom. The general even danced – which was almost unheard of- with Lidiya Dumanovsky. And more than one observer said that in a certain light one could see that there were three dancing together beneath the soft lights of the great room: Lidiya, the General, and Lucifer himself.
And so it transpired that a deal was done, and the Dumanovsky family breathed sighs of relief and paid for a lavish society wedding between this great military man and their strangest of daughters. Everyone attended, not from any love of the two predators at its heart, but to find out if they really would unite in marriage, or whether one might play a trick on the other and give the city something to gossip about for years to come.
But they married, and many wondered what life was like in the fashionably located house in Nevsky Prospekt. To inquire after them and visit the place would be to open oneself to possible ridicule and ruin, and maybe to meet one of Lidiya’s strange acquaintances; and so most people preferred to go on guessing and gossiping.
For three years the General was often away, and Lidiya Ilyasov fashioned a life of comparative independence, choosing her company and cultivating her interests. People began to become used to the strange folks who shuffled up to the great house in the evenings, and who left late into the night. They turned a deaf ear to the sounds so alien to the city, the wails and cackles and shrieks which emanated from the great, tall town house from cellars to attics.
But families ushered their children past the doors of the house, lest those unsettling tales of human sacrifice had any grounding whatsoever in fact.
It was hard to keep servants there, and Lidiya cultivated a small but fiercely loyal set of reprobates, who kept the place clean, and served superlative food, and went on her unholy errands without complaint. She paid them well, so that she must have asked for tales of the General’s behavior at home to be distributed far and wide in the coffee houses and the salons, for had she demanded their silence she would have secured their unquestioning obedience.
But it became common knowledge that the General was a difficult house guest when he was at home.
Unlike most, he did not react with fear to those occurrences which could not be explained. But he had anticipated having this young wife to himself, and it appeared he must share her with cackling scuttling creatures above the rafters and behind the bookshelves and even up the chimney. The confirmation that beneath the veneer of life might exist a malevolent spirit world cast uncertainty into his life. It hinted darkly at an afterlife in which the act of killing might have consequences.
Evil takes many forms. But Alexandr Ilyasov had never before contemplated that there might be some forms of evil which were beyond even him. And for the first time in his life, he began to experience an alien emotion to himself: that of deep-seated, searing envy.
And so, he began to dissemble to destroy this interloper to his life, this black-eyed enchantress who laughed gaily at the obscene and the unthinkable.
He would come to her dressing room and storm up and down, demanding that his wife do whatever she must do to dispatch her ghosts and demons. He would catch her wrist, and snatch up a letter knife, and she would smile, delighted, and her eyes would sparkle, and she would wonder if this would be the moment he chose to take her life; and if so, what manner of dying might dispatch her into the afterlife which fascinated her more and more each day.
Dylan sat back and rubbed his eyes. It was 6am: he must sleep. Yet he knew he was on the right trail. He knew this beyond a shadow of a doubt. And how did he know this? Because he had come to know the woman living in his wife quite well over the past days. And, without question, he now knew her name. Meg was wrestling for her existence with a woman called Lidiya Ilyasov.
And now he knew her name he longed to know what would happen if he addressed her.
He stood: sleep deprived, half-mad with worry for his wife and grief for the loss of his settled existence. And he was conscious of a fury at the Ilyasov woman. He walked into the bedroom. The commotion of the night time had faded, and a drawn Meg slept, exhausted, whilst the mirror stood, blank and uncompromising.
Into the silence of the early morning, Dylan spoke.
“Lidiya Ilyasov. Lidiya, I know who you are.”
Something stirred in the reflection of the mirror. Something scowled, an eddy of shadows trembled. Then, all was quiet again.
“Lidiya Ilyasov,” Dylan insisted, his voice far from steady, racked with anger: “Lydiya Ilyasov, I am coming to get you. You will leave my wife.”
Never threaten a psychopathic ghost.
A ripple of laughter emanated from the corner where the mirror stood, but it was a mirthless as the grave and dry as a shroud.
And then, impossibly, Meg’s figure began to rise from the bed. Still prone horizontally, still unconscious, but inexorably ascending, by tiny increments, until there was about a foot of clear space between the body and the bed.
Horrified, Dylan looked to her mouth, where a single rose-red trickle of blood ran from one corner.
He rushed to engulf her, to hold her down, or hold her up, at least hold her tight; to stop the blood, to end this now. But he had started the fight, and a display of his devotion was not about to impress Lidiya Ilyasov. His wife remained immoveable, a foot above the bedclothes, for some thirty seconds, and blood began to drip onto the white Egyptian cotton below, and Dylan wept because it seemed he was defeated, and that was all there was to be done.
And then, like a rag doll, the ghost dropped Meg onto the bed.
Meg came to, gasping and disoriented, but it was but an instant of confusion before the black eyes of Lidiya Ilyasov stared back at Dylan from his wife’s face, and he sprang backwards.
Dylan knew he needed help. And fast.