THE VAMPYRE

It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him, and those who had been accustomed to violent excitement, and now felt the weight of ennui, were pleased at having something in their presence capable of engaging their attention. In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a wanner tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection: Lady Mercer, who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage, threw herself in his way, and did all but put on the dress of a mountebank, to attract his notice – though in vain; – when she stood before him, though his eyes were apparently fixed upon hers, still it seemed as if they were unperceived; – even her unappalled impudence was baffled, and she left the field. But though the common adultress could not influence even the guidance of his eyes, it was not that the female sex was indifferent to him: yet such was the apparent caution with which he spoke to the virtuous wife and innocent daughter, that few knew he ever addressed himself to females. He had, however, the reputation of a winning tongue; and whether it was that it even overcame the dread of his singular character, or that they were moved by his apparent hatred of vice, he was as often among those females who form the boast of their sex from their domestic virtues, as among those who sully it by their vices.

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     About the same time, there came to London a young gentleman of the name of Aubrey: he was an orphan left with an only sister in the possession of great wealth, by parents who died while he was yet in childhood. Left also to himself by guardians, who thought it their duty merely to take care of his fortune, while they relinquished the more important charge of his mind to the care of mercenary subalterns, he cultivated more his imagination than his judgment. He had, hence, that high romantic feeling of honour and candour, which daily ruins so many milliners’ apprentices. He believed all to sympathise with virtue, and thought that vice was thrown in by Providence merely for the picturesque effect of the scene, as we see in romances: he thought that the misery of a cottage merely consisted in the vesting of clothes, which were as warm, but which were better adapted to the painter’s eye by their irregular folds and various coloured patches. He thought, in fine, that the dreams of poets were the realities of life. He was handsome, frank, and rich: for these reasons, upon his entering into the gay circles, many mothers surrounded him, striving which should describe with least truth their languishing or romping favourites: the daughters at the same time, by their brightening countenances when he approached, and by their sparkling eyes, when he opened his lips, soon led him into false notions of his talents and his merit. Attached as he was to the romance of his solitary hours, he was startled at finding, that, except in the tallow and wax candles that flickered, not from the presence of a ghost, but from want of snuffing, there was no foundation in real life for any of that congeries of pleasing pictures and descriptions contained in those volumes, from which he had formed his study. Finding, however, some compensation in his gratified vanity, he was about to relinquish his dreams, when the extraordinary being we have above described, crossed him in his career.

He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact: allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him. He became acquainted with him, paid him attentions, and so far advanced upon his notice, that his presence was always recognised. He gradually learnt that Lord Ruthven’s affairs were embarrassed, and soon found, from the notes of preparation in __ Street, that he was about to travel. Desirous of gaining some information respecting this singular character, who, till now, had only whetted his curiosity, he hinted to his guardians, that it was time for him to perform the tour, which for many generations has been thought necessary to enable the young to take some rapid steps in the career of vice towards putting themselves upon an equality with the aged, and not allowing them to appear as if fallen from the skies, whenever scandalous intrigues are mentioned as the subjects of pleasantry or of praise, according to the degree of skill shewn in carrying them on. They consented: and Aubrey immediately mentioning his intentions to Lord Ruthven, was surprised to receive from him a proposal to join him. Flattered such a mark of esteem from him, who, apparently, had nothing in common with other men, he gladly accepted it, and in a few days they had passed the circling waters.

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     Hitherto, Aubrey had had no opportunity of studying Lord Ruthven’s character, and now he found, that, though many more of his actions were exposed to his view, the results offered different conclusions from the apparent motives to his conduct. His companion was profuse in his liberality; – the idle, the vagabond, and the beggar, received from his hand more than enough to relieve their immediate wants. But Aubrey could not avoid remarking, that it was not upon the virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue, that he bestowed his alms; – these were sent from the door with hardly suppressed sneers; but when the profligate came to ask something, not to relieve his wants, but to allow him to wallow in his lust, to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity. This was, however, attributed by him to the greater importunity of the vicious, which generally prevails over the retiring bashfulness of the virtuous indigent. There was one circumstance about the charity of his Lordship, which was still more impressed upon his mind: all those upon whom it was bestowed, inevitably found that there was a curse upon it, for they were all either led to the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and the most abject misery. At Brussels and other towns through which they passed, Aubrey was surprised at the apparent eagerness with which his companion sought for the centres of all fashionable vice; there he entered into all the spirit of the faro table: he betted and always gambled with success, except where the known sharper was his antagonist, and then he lost even more than he gained; but it was always with the same unchanging face, with which he generally watched the society around: it was not, however, so when he encountered the rash youthful novice, or the luckless father of a numerous family; then his very wish seemed fortune’s law – this apparent abstractedness of mind was laid aside, and his eyes sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with the half-dead mouse. In every town, he left the formerly affluent youth, torn from the circle he adorned, cursing, in the solitude of a dungeon, the fate that had drawn him within the reach of this fiend; whilst many a father sat frantic, amidst the speaking looks of mute hungry children, without a single farthing of his late immense wealth, wherewith to buy even sufficient to satisfy their present craving. Yet he took no money from the gambling table; but immediately lost, to the ruiner of many, the last gilder he had just snatched from the convulsive grasp of the innocent: this might but be the result of a certain degree of knowledge, which was not, however, capable of combating the cunning of the more experienced. Aubrey often wished to represent this to his friend, and beg him to resign that charity and pleasure which proved the ruin of all, and did not tend to his own profit; but he delayed it – for each day he hoped his friend would give him some opportunity of speaking frankly and openly to him; however, this never occurred. Lord Ruthven in his carriage, and amidst the various wild and rich scenes of nature, was always the same: his eye spoke less than his lip; and though Aubrey was near the object of his curiosity, he obtained no greater gratification from it than the constant excitement of vainly wishing to break that mystery, which to his exalted imagination began to assume the appearance of something supernatural.

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     They soon arrived at Rome, and Aubrey for a time lost sight of his companion; he left him in daily attendance upon the morning circle of an Italian countess, whilst he went in search of the memorials of another almost deserted city. Whilst he was thus engaged, letters arrived from England, which he opened with eager impatience; the first was from his sister, breathing nothing but affection; the others were from his guardians, the latter astonished him; if it had before entered into his imagination that there was an evil power resident in his companion these seemed to give him almost sufficient reason for the belief. His guardians insisted upon his immediately leaving his friend, and urged that his character was dreadfully vicious, for that the possession of irresistible powers of seduction, rendered his licentious habits more dangerous to society. It had been discovered, that his contempt for the adultress had not originated in hatred of her character; but that he had required, to enhance his gratification, that his victim, the partner of his guilt, should be hurled from the pinnacle of unsullied virtue, down to the lowest abyss of infamy and degradation: in fine, that all those females whom he had sought, apparently on account of their virtue, had, since his departure, thrown even the mask aside, and had not scrupled to expose the whole deformity of their vices to the public gaze.

Aubrey determined upon leaving one, whose character had not shown a single bright point on which to rest the eye. He resolved to invent some plausible pretext for abandoning him altogether, purposing, in the mean while, to watch him more closely, and to let no slight circumstances pass by unnoticed. He entered into the same circle, and soon perceived, that his Lordship was endeavouring to work upon the inexperience of the daughter of the lady whose house he chiefly frequented. In Italy, it is seldom that an unmarried female is met with in society; he was therefore obliged to carry on his plans in secret; but Aubrey’s eye followed him in all his windings, and soon discovered that an assignation had been appointed, which would most likely end in the ruin of an innocent, though thoughtless girl. Losing no time, he entered the apartment of Lord Ruthven, and abruptly asked him his intentions with respect to the lady, informing him at the same time that he was aware of his being about to meet her that very night. Lord Ruthven answered, that his intentions were such as he supposed all would have upon such an occasion; and upon being pressed whether he intended to marry her, merely laughed. Aubrey retired; and, immediately writing a note, to say, that from that moment he must decline accompanying his Lordship in the remainder of their proposed tour, he ordered his servant to seek other apartments, and calling upon the mother of the lady informed her of all he knew, not only with regard to her daughter, but also concerning the character of his Lordship. The assignation was prevented. Lord Ruthven next day merely sent his servant to notify his complete assent to a separation; but did not hint any suspicion of his plans having been foiled by Aubrey’s interposition.

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     Having left Rome, Aubrey directed his steps towards Greece, and crossing the Peninsula, soon found himself at Athens. He then fixed residence in the house of a Greek; and soon occupied himself in tracing the faded records of ancient glory upon monuments that apparently, ashamed of chronicling the deeds of freemen only before slaves, had hidden themselves beneath the sheltering soil or many coloured lichen. Under the same roof as himself, existed a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter, wishing to portray on canvass the promised hope of the faithful in Mahomet’s paradise, save that her eyes spoke too much mind for any one to think she could belong to those who had no souls. As she danced upon the plain, or tripped along the mountain’s side, one would have thought the gazelle a poor type of her beauties; for who would have exchanged her eye, apparently the eye of animated nature, for that sleepy luxurious look of the animal suited but to the taste of an epicure. The light step of Ianthe often accompanied Aubrey in his search after antiquities, and often would the unconscious girl, engaged in the pursuit of a Kashmere butterfly, show the whole beauty of her form, boating as it were upon the wind, to the eager gaze of him, who forgot the letters he had just decyphered upon an almost effaced tablet, in the contemplation of her sylph-like figure. Often would her tresses falling, as she flitted around, exhibit in the sun’s ray such delicately brilliant and swiftly fading hues, as might well excuse the forgetfulness of the antiquary, who let escape from his mind the very object he had before thought of vital importance to the proper interpretation of a passage in Pausanias. But why attempt to describe charms which all feel, but none can appreciate? – It was innocence, youth, and beauty, unaffected by crowded drawing-rooms and stifling balls. Whilst he drew those remains of which he wished to preserve a memorial for his future hours, she would stand by, and watch the magic effects of his pencil, in tracing the scenes of her native place; she would then describe to him the circling dance upon the open plain, would paint to him in all the glowing colours of youthful memory, the marriage pomp she remembered viewing in her infancy; and then, turning to subjects that had evidently made a greater impression upon her mind, would tell him all the supernatural tales of her nurse. Her earnestness and apparent belief of what she narrated, excited the interest even of Aubrey; and often as she told him the tale of the living vampyre, who had passed years amidst his friends, and dearest ties, forced every year, by feeding upon the life of a lovely female to prolong his existence for the ensuing months, his blood would run cold, whilst he attempted to laugh her out of such idle and horrible fantasies; but Ianthe cited to him the names of old men, who had at last detected one living among themselves, after several of their near relatives and children had been found marked with the stamp of the fiend’s appetite; and when she found him so incredulous, she begged of him to believe her, for it had been remarked, that those who had dared to question their existence, always had some proof given, which obliged them, with grief and heartbreaking, to confess it was true. She detailed to him the traditional appearance of these monsters, and his horror was increased by hearing a pretty accurate description of Lord Ruthven; he, however, still persisted in persuading her, that there could be no truth in her fears, though at the same time he wondered at the many coincidences which had all tended to excite a belief in the supernatural power of Lord Ruthven.

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     Aubrey began to attach himself more and more to Ianthe; her innocence, so contrasted with all the affected virtues of the women among whom he had sought for his vision of romance, won his heart and while he ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl, still he found himself more and more attached to the almost fairy form before him. He would tear himself at times from her, and, forming a plan for some antiquarian research, would depart, determined not to return until his object was attained; but he always found it impossible to fix his attention upon the ruins around him, whilst in his mind he retained an image that seemed alone the rightful possessor of his thoughts. Ianthe was unconscious of his love, and was ever the same frank infantile being he had first known. She always seemed to part from him with reluctance; but it was because she had no longer any one with whom she could visit her favourite haunts, whilst her guardian was occupied in sketching or uncovering some fragment which had yet escaped the destructive hand of time. She had appealed to her parents on the subject of Vampyres, and they both, with several present, affirmed their existence, pale with horror at the very name. Soon after, Aubrey determined to proceed upon one of his excursions, which was to detain him for a few hours; when they heard the name of the place, they all at once begged of him not to return at night, as he must necessarily pass through a wood, where no Greek would ever remain, after the day had closed, upon any consideration. They described it as the resort of the vampyres in their nocturnal orgies and denounced the most heavy evils as impending upon him who dared to cross their path. Aubrey made light of their representations, and tried to laugh them out of the idea; but when he saw them shudder at his daring thus to mock a superior, infernal power, the very name of which apparently made their blood freeze, he was silent.

Next morning Aubrey set off upon his excursion unattended; he was surprised to observe the melancholy face of his host, and was concerned to find that his words, mocking the belief of those horrible fiends, had inspired them with such terror. When he was about to depart, Ianthe came to the side of his horse, and earnestly begged of him to return, ere night allowed the power of these beings to be put in action; – he promised. He was, however, so occupied in his research, that he did not perceive that day-light would soon end, and that in the horizon there was one of those specks which, in the warmer climates, so rapidly gather into a tremendous mass, and pour all their rage upon the devoted country. – He at last, however, mounted his horse, determined to make up by speed for his delay: but it was too late. Twilight, in these southern climates, is almost unknown; immediately the sun sets, night begins: and ere he had advanced far, the power of the storm was above – its echoing thunders had scarcely an interval of rest; – its thick heavy rain forced its way through the canopying foliage, whilst the blue forked lightning seemed to fall and radiate at his very feet. Suddenly his horse took fright, and he was carried with dreadful rapidity through the entangled forest. The animal at last, through fatigue, stopped, and he found, by the glare of lightning, that he was in the neighbourhood of a hovel that hardly lifted itself up from the masses of dead leaves and brushwood which surrounded it. Dismounting, he approached, hoping to find some one to guide him to the town, or at least trusting to obtain shelter from the pelting of the storm. As he approached, the thunders, for a moment silent, allowed him to hear the dreadful shrieks of a woman mingling with the stifled, exultant mockery of a laugh, continued in one almost unbroken sound; – he was startled: but, roused by the thunder which again rolled over his head, he, with a sudden effort, forced open the door of the hut. He found himself in utter darkness: the sound, however, guided him. He was apparently unperceived; for, though he called, still the sounds continued, and no notice was taken of him. He found himself in contact with some one, whom he immediately seized; when a voice cried, “Again baffled!” to which a loud laugh succeeded; and he felt himself grappled by one whose strength seemed superhuman: determined to sell his life as dearly as he could, he struggled; but it was in vain: he was lifted from his feet and hurled with enormous force against the ground: – his enemy threw himself upon him, and kneeling upon his breast, had placed his hands upon his throat when the glare of many torches penetrating through the hole that gave light in the day, disturbed him; – he instantly rose, and, leaving his prey, rushed through the door, and in a moment the crashing of branches, as he broke through the wood, was no longer heard. The storm was now still; and Aubrey, incapable of moving, was soon heard by those without. They entered; the light of their torches fell upon mud walls, and the thatch loaded on every individual straw with heavy flakes of soot. At the desire of Aubrey they searched for her who had attracted him by her cries; he was again left in darkness; but what was his horror, when the light of the torches once more burst upon him, to perceive the airy form of his fair conductress brought in a lifeless corpse. He shut his eyes, hoping that it was but a vision arising from his disturbed imagination; but he again saw the same form, when he unclosed them, stretched by his side. There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: – upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein: – to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!” A litter was quickly formed, and Aubrey was laid by the side of her who had lately been to him the object of so many bright and fairy visions, now fallen; with the flower of life that had died within her. He knew not what his thoughts were – his mind was benumbed and seemed to shun reflection and take refuge in vacancy; – he held almost unconsciously in his hand a naked dagger of a particular construction, which had been found in the hut. They were soon met by different parties who had been engaged in the search of her whom a mother had missed. Their lamentable cries as they approached the city, forewarned the parents of some dreadful catastrophe. – To describe their grief would be impossible; but when they ascertained the cause of their child’s death, they looked at Aubrey and pointed to the corpse. They were inconsolable; both died brokenhearted.

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     Aubrey being put to bed was seized with a most violent fever, and was often delirious; in these intervals he would call upon Lord Ruthven and upon Ianthe – by some unaccountable combination he seemed to beg of his former companion to spare the being he loved. At other times he would imprecate maledictions upon his head, and curse him as her destroyer. Lord Ruthven chanced at this time to arrive at Athens, and from whatever motive, upon hearing of the state of Aubrey, immediately placed himself in the same house, and became his constant attendant. When the latter recovered from his delirium, he was horrified and startled at the sight of him whose image he had now combined with that of a Vampyre; but Lord Ruthven, by his kind words, implying almost repentance for the fault that had caused their separation, and still more by the attention, anxiety, and care which he showed, soon reconciled him to his presence. His lordship seemed quite changed; he no longer appeared that apathetic being who had so astonished Aubrey; but as soon as his convalescence began to be rapid, he again gradually retired into the same state of mind, and Aubrey perceived no difference from the former man, except that at times he was surprised to meet his gaze fixed intently upon him, with a smile of malicious exultation playing upon his lips: he knew not why, but this smile haunted him. During the last stage of the invalid’s recovery, Lord Ruthven was apparently engaged in watching the tideless waves raised by the cooling breeze, or in marking the progress of those orbs, circling, like our world, the moveless sun; – indeed, he appeared to wish to avoid the eyes of all.

Aubrey’s mind, by this shock, was much weakened, and that elasticity of spirit which had once so distinguished him now seemed to have fled for ever. He was now as much a lover of solitude and silence as Lord Ruthven; but much as he wished for solitude, his mind could not find it in the neighbourhood of Athens; if he sought it amidst the ruins he had formerly frequented, Ianthe’s form stood by his side; – if he sought it in the woods, her light step would appear wandering amidst the underwood, in quest of the modest violet; then suddenly turning round, would show, to his wild imagination, her pale face and wounded throat, with a meek smile upon her lips. He determined to fly scenes, every feature of which created such bitter associations in his mind. He proposed to Lord Ruthven, to whom he held himself bound by the tender care he had taken of him during his illness, that they should visit those parts of Greece neither had yet seen. They travelled in every direction, and sought every spot to which a recollection could be attached: but though they thus hastened from place to place, yet they seemed not to heed what they gazed upon. They heard much of robbers, but they gradually began to slight these reports, which they imagined were only the invention of individuals, whose interest it was to excite the generosity of those whom they defended from pretended dangers. In consequence of thus neglecting the advice of the inhabitants, on one occasion they travelled with only a few guards, more to serve as guides than as a defence. Upon entering, however, a narrow defile, at the bottom of which was the bed of a torrent, with large masses of rock brought down from the neighbouring precipices, they had reason to repent their negligence; for scarcely were the whole of the party engaged in the narrow pass, when they were startled by the whistling of bullets close to their heads, and by the echoed report of several guns. In an instant their guards had left them, and, placing themselves behind rocks, had begun to fire in the direction whence the report came. Lord Ruthven and Aubrey, imitating their example, retired for a moment behind the sheltering turn of the defile: but ashamed of being thus detained by a foe, who with insulting shouts bade them advance, and being exposed to unresisting slaughter, if any of the robbers should climb above and take them in the rear, they determined at once to rush forward in search of the enemy. Hardly had they lost the shelter of rock, when Lord Ruthven received a shot in the shoulder, which brought him to the ground. Aubrey hastened to his assistance; and, no longer heeding the contest or his own peril, was soon surprised by seeing the robbers’ faces around him – his guards having, upon Lord Ruthven’s being wounded, immediately thrown up their arms and surrendered.

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     By promises of great reward, Aubrey soon induced them to convey his wounded friend to a neighbouring cabin; and having agreed upon a ransom, he was no more disturbed by their presence – they being content merely to guard the entrance till their comrade should return with the promised sum, for which he had an order. Lord Ruthven’s strength rapidly decreased; in two days mortification ensued, and death seemed advancing with hasty steps. His conduct and appearance had not changed; he seemed as unconscious of pain as he had been of the objects about him: but towards the close of the last evening, his mind became apparently uneasy, and his eye often fixed upon Aubrey, who was induced to offer his assistance with more than usual earnestness – “Assist me! you may save me – you may do more than that – I mean not life, I heed the death of my existence as little as that of the passing day; but you may save my honour, your friend’s honour.” – “How? tell me how? I would do any thing,” replied Aubrey. – “I need but little, my life ebbs apace – I cannot explain the whole – but if you would conceal all you know of me, my honour were free from stain in the world’s mouth – and if my death were unknown for some time in England – I – I – but life.” – “It shall not be known.” – “Swear!” cried the dying man raising himself with exultant violence. “Swear by all your soul reveres, by all your nature fears, swear that for a year and a day you will not impart your knowledge of my crimes or death to any living being in any way, whatever may happen, or whatever you may see.” – His eyes seemed bursting from their sockets; “I swear!” said Aubrey; he sunk laughing upon his pillow, and breathed no more.

Aubrey retired to rest, but did not sleep; the many circumstances attending his acquaintance with this man rose upon his mind, and he knew not why; when he remembered his oath a cold shivering came over him, as if from the presentiment of something horrible awaiting him. Rising early in the morning, he was about to enter the hovel in which he had left the corpse, when a robber met him, and informed him that it was no longer there, having been conveyed by himself and comrades, upon his retiring, to the pinnacle of a neighbouring mount, according to a promise they had given his lordship, that it should be exposed to the first cold ray of the moon that rose after his death. Aubrey astonished, and taking several of the men, determined to go and bury it upon the spot where it lay. But, when he had mounted to the summit he found no trace of either the corpse or the clothes, though the robbers swore they pointed out the identical rock on which they had laid the body. For a time his mind was bewildered in conjectures, but he at last returned, convinced that they had buried the corpse for the sake of the clothes.

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     Weary of a country in which he had met with such terrible misfortunes, and in which all apparently conspired to heighten that superstitious melancholy that had seized upon his mind, he resolved to leave it, and soon arrived at Smyrna. While waiting for a vessel to convey him to Otranto, or to Naples, he occupied himself in arranging those effects he had with him belonging to Lord Ruthven. Amongst other things there was a case containing several weapons of offence, more or less adapted to ensure the death of the victim. There were several daggers and ataghans. Whilst turning them over, and examining their curious forms, what was his surprise at finding a sheath apparently ornamented in the same style as the dagger discovered in the fatal hut; – he shuddered; hastening to gain further proof, he found the weapon, and his horror may be imagined when he discovered that it fitted, though peculiarly shaped, the sheath he held in his hand. His eyes seemed to need no further certainty – they seemed gazing to be bound to the dagger, yet still he wished to disbelieve; but the particular form, the same varying tints upon the haft and sheath were alike in splendour on both, and left no room for doubt; there were also drops of blood on each.

He left Smyrna, and on his way home, at Rome, his first inquiries were concerning the lady he had attempted to snatch from Lord Ruthven’s seductive arts. Her parents were in distress, their fortune ruined, and she had not been heard of since the departure of his lordship. Aubrey’s mind became almost broken under so many repeated horrors; he was afraid that this lady had fallen a victim to the destroyer of Ianthe. He became morose and silent; and his only occupation consisted in urging the speed of the postilions, as if he were going to save the life of some one he held dear. He arrived at Calais; a breeze, which seemed obedient to his will, soon wafted him to the English shores; and he hastened to the mansion of his fathers, and there, for a moment, appeared to lose, in the embraces and caresses of his sister, all memory of the past. If she before, by her infantine caresses, had gained his affection, now that the woman began to appear, she was still more attaching as a companion.

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     Miss Aubrey had not that winning grace which gains the gaze and applause of the drawing-room assemblies. There was none of that light brilliancy which only exists in the heated atmosphere of a crowded apartment. Her blue eye was never lit up by the levity of the mind beneath. There was a melancholy charm about it which did not seem to arise from misfortune, but from some feeling within, that appeared to indicate a soul conscious of a brighter realm. Her step was not that light footing, which strays where’er a butterfly or a colour may attract – it was sedate and pensive. When alone, her face was never brightened by the smile of joy; but when her brother breathed to her his affection, and would in her presence forget those griefs she knew destroyed his rest, who would have exchanged her smile for that of the voluptuary? It seemed as if those eyes, that face were then playing in the light of their own native sphere. She was yet only eighteen, and had not been presented to the world, it having been thought by her guardians more fit that her presentation should be delayed until her brother’s return from the continent, when he might be her protector. It was now, therefore, resolved that the next drawing-room, which was fast approaching, should be the epoch of her entry into the “busy scene.” Aubrey would rather have remained in the mansion of his fathers, and feed upon the melancholy which overpowered him. He could not feel interest about the frivolities of fashionable strangers, when his mind had been so torn by the events he had witnessed; but he determined to sacrifice his own comfort to the protection of his sister. They soon arrived in town, and prepared for the next day, which had been announced as a drawing- room.

The crowd was excessive – a drawing-room had not been held for long time, and all who were anxious to bask in the smile of royalty, hastened thither. Aubrey was there with his sister. While he was standing in a corner by himself, heedless of all around him, engaged in the remembrance that the first time he had seen Lord Ruthven was in that very place – he felt himself suddenly seized by the arm, and a voice he recognized too well, sounded in his ear – “Remember your oath.” He had hardly courage to turn, fearful of seeing a spectre that would blast him, when he perceived, at a little distance, the same figure which had attracted his notice on this spot upon his first entry into society. He gazed till his limbs almost refusing to bear their weight, he was obliged to take the arm of a friend, and forcing a passage through the crowd, he threw himself into his carriage, and was driven home. He paced the room with hurried steps, and fixed his hands upon his head, as if he were afraid his thoughts were bursting from his brain. Lord Ruthven again before him – circumstances started up in dreadful array – the dagger – his oath. – He roused himself, he could not believe it possible – the dead rise again! – He thought his imagination had conjured up the image his mind was resting upon. It was impossible that it could be real – he determined, therefore, to go again into society; for though he attempted to ask concerning Lord Ruthven, the name hung upon his lips and he could not succeed in gaining information. He went a few nights after with his sister to the assembly of a near relation. Leaving her under the protection of a matron, he retired into a recess, and there gave himself up to his own devouring thoughts. Perceiving, at last, that many were leaving, he roused himself, and entering another room, found his sister surrounded by several, apparently in earnest conversation; he attempted to pass and get near her, when one, whom he requested to move, turned round, and revealed to him those features he most abhorred. He sprang forward, seized his sister’s arm, and, with hurried step, forced her towards the street: at the door he found himself impeded by the crowd of servants who were waiting for their lords; and while he was engaged in passing them, he again heard that voice whisper close to him – “Remember your oath!” – He did not dare to turn, but, hurrying his sister, soon reached home.

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     Aubrey became almost distracted. If before his mind had been absorbed by one subject, how much more completely was it engrossed now that the certainty of the monster’s living again pressed upon his thoughts. His sister’s attentions were now unheeded, and it was in vain that she intreated him to explain to her what had caused his abrupt conduct. He only uttered a few words, and those terrified her. The more he thought, the more he was bewildered. His oath startled him; – was he then to allow this monster to roam, bearing ruin upon his breath, amidst all he held dear, and not avert its progress? His very sister might have been touched by him. But even if he were to break his oath, and disclose his suspicions, who would believe him? He thought of employing his own hand to free the world from such a wretch; but death, he remembered, had been already mocked. For days he remained in state; shut up in his room, he saw no one, and ate only when his sister came, who, with eyes streaming with tears, besought him, for her sake, to support nature. At last, no longer capable of bearing stillness and solitude, he left his house, roamed from street to street, anxious to fly that image which haunted him. His dress became neglected, and he wandered, as often exposed to the noon-day sun as to the mid-night damps. He was no longer to be recognized; at first he returned with evening to the house; but at last he laid him down to rest wherever fatigue overtook him. His sister, anxious for his safety, employed people to follow him; but they were soon distanced by him who fled from a pursuer swifter than any – from thought. His conduct, however, suddenly changed. Struck with the idea that he left by his absence the whole of his friends, with a fiend amongst them, of whose presence they were unconscious, he determined to enter again into society, and watch him closely, anxious to forewarn, in spite of his oath, all whom Lord Ruthven approached with intimacy. But when he entered into a room, his haggard and suspicious looks were so striking, his inward shuddering so visible, that his sister was at last obliged to beg of him to abstain from seeking, for her sake, a society which affected him so strongly. When, however, remonstrance proved unavailing, the guardians thought proper to interpose, and, fearing that his mind was becoming alienated, they thought it high time to resume again that trust which had been before imposed upon them by Aubrey’s parents.

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     Desirous of saving him from the injuries and sufferings he had daily encountered in his wanderings, and of preventing him from exposing to the general eye those marks of what they considered folly, they engaged a physician to reside in the house, and take constant care of him. He hardly appeared to notice it, so completely was his mind absorbed by one terrible subject. His incoherence became at last so great that he was confined to his chamber. There he would often lie for days, incapable of being roused. He had become emaciated, his eyes had attained a glassy lustre; – the only sign of affection and recollection remaining displayed itself upon the entry of his sister; then he would sometimes start, and, seizing her hands, with looks that severely afflicted her, he would desire her not to touch him. “Oh, do not touch him – if your love for me is aught, do not go near him!” When, however, she inquired to whom he referred, his only answer was, “True! true!” and again he sank into a state, whence not even she could rouse him. This lasted many months: gradually, however, as the year was passing, his incoherences became less frequent, and his mind threw off a portion of its gloom, whilst his guardians observed, that several times in the day he would count upon his fingers a definite number, and then smile.

The time had nearly elapsed, when, upon the last day of the year, one of his guardians entering his room, began to converse with his physician upon the melancholy circumstance of Aubrey’s being in so awful a situation, when his sister was going next day to be married. Instantly Aubrey’s attention was attracted; he asked anxiously to whom. Glad of this mark of returning intellect, of which they feared he had been deprived, they mentioned the name of the Earl of Marsden. Thinking this was a young Earl whom he had met with in society, Aubrey seemed pleased, and astonished them still more by his expressing his intention to be present at the nuptials, and desiring to see his sister. They answered not, but in a few minutes his sister was with him. He was apparently again capable of being affected by the influence of her lovely smile; for he pressed her to his breast, and kissed her cheek, wet with tears, flowing at the thought of her brother’s being once more alive to the feelings of affection. He began to speak with all his wonted warmth, and to congratulate her upon her marriage with a person so distinguished for rank and every accomplishment; when he suddenly perceived a locket upon her breast; opening it, what was his surprise at beholding the features of the monster who had so long influenced his life. He seized the portrait in a paroxysm of rage, and trampled it under foot. Upon her asking him why he thus destroyed the resemblance of her future husband, he looked as if he did not understand her; – then seizing her hands, and gazing on her with a frantic expression of countenance, he bade her swear that she would never wed this monster, for he – But he could not advance – it seemed as if that voice again bade him remember his oath – he turned suddenly round, thinking Lord Ruthven was near him but saw no one. In the meantime the guardians and physician, who had heard the whole, and thought this was but a return of his disorder, entered, and forcing him from Miss Aubrey, desired her to leave him. He fell upon his knees to them, he implored, he begged of them to delay but for one day. They, attributing this to the insanity they imagined had taken possession of his mind endeavoured to pacify him, and retired.

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     Lord Ruthven had called the morning after the drawing-room, and had been refused with every one else. When he heard of Aubrey’s ill health, he readily understood himself to be the cause of it; but when he learned that he was deemed insane, his exultation and pleasure could hardly be concealed from those among whom he had gained this information. He hastened to the house of his former companion, and, by constant attendance, and the pretence of great affection for the brother and interest in his fate, he gradually won the ear of Miss Aubrey. Who could resist his power? His tongue had dangers and toils to recount – could speak of himself as of an individual having no sympathy with any being on the crowded earth, save with her to whom he addressed himself; – could tell how, since he knew her, his existence had begun to seem worthy of preservation, if it were merely that he might listen her soothing accents; – in fine, he knew so well how to use the serpent’s art, or such was the will of fate, that he gained her affections. The title of the elder branch falling at length to him, he obtained an important embassy, which served as an excuse for hastening the marriage (in spite of her brother’s deranged state), which was to take place the very day before his departure for the continent.

Aubrey, when he was left by the physician and his guardians, attempted to bribe the servants, but in vain. He asked for pen and paper; it was given him; he wrote a letter to his sister, conjuring her, as she valued her own happiness, her own honour, and the honour of those now in the grave, who once held her in their arms as their hope and the hope of their house, to delay but for a few hours that marriage, on which he denounced the most heavy curses. The servants promised they would deliver it; but giving it to the physician, he thought it better not to harass any more the mind of Miss Aubrey by, what he considered, the ravings of a maniac. Night passed on without rest to the busy inmates of the house; and Aubrey heard, with a horror that may more easily be conceived than described, the notes of busy preparation. Morning came, and the sound of carriages broke upon his ear. Aubrey grew almost frantic. The curiosity of the servants at last overcame their vigilance; they gradually stole away, leaving him in the custody of an helpless old woman. He seized the opportunity, with one bound was out of the room, and in a moment found himself in the apartment where all were nearly assembled. Lord Ruthven was the first to perceive him: he immediately approached, and, taking his arm by force, hurried him from the room, speechless with rage. When on the staircase, Lord Ruthven whispered in his ear – “Remember your oath, and know, if not my bride to day, your sister is dishonoured. Women are frail!” So saying, he pushed him towards his attendants, who, roused by the old woman, had come in search of him. Aubrey could no longer support himself; his rage not finding vent, had broken a blood-vessel, and he was conveyed to bed. This was not mentioned to his sister, who was not present when he entered, as the physician was afraid of agitating her. The marriage was solemnized, and the bride and bridegroom left London.

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     Aubrey’s weakness increased; the effusion of blood produced symptoms of the near approach of death. He desired his sister’s guardians might be called, and when the midnight hour had struck, he related composedly what the reader has perused – he died immediately after.

The guardians hastened to protect Miss Aubrey; but when they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a Vampyre!




DRACULA’S GUEST

When we started for our drive the sun was shining brightly on Munich, and the air was full of the joyousness of early summer. Just as we were about to depart, Herr Delbruck (the maitre d’hotel of the Quatre Saisons, where I was staying) came down bareheaded to the carriage and, after wishing me a pleasant drive, said to the coachman, still holding his hand on the handle of the carriage door, “Remember you are back by nightfall. The sky looks bright but there is a shiver in the north wind that says there may be a sudden storm. But I am sure you will not be late.” Here he smiled and added, “for you know what night it is.”

Johann answered with an emphatic, “Ja, mein Herr,” and, touching his hat, drove off quickly. When we had cleared the town, I said, after signalling to him to stop:

“Tell me, Johann, what is tonight?”

He crossed himself, as he answered laconically: “Walpurgis nacht.” Then he took out his watch, a great, old-fashioned German silver thing as big as a turnip and looked at it, with his eyebrows gathered together and a little impatient shrug of his shoulders. I realized that this was his way of respectfully protesting against the unnecessary delay and sank back in the carriage, merely motioning him to proceed. He started off rapidly, as if to make up for lost time. Every now and then the horses seemed to throw up their heads and sniff the air suspiciously. On such occasions I often looked round in alarm. The road was pretty bleak, for we were traversing a sort of high windswept plateau. As we drove, I saw a road that looked but little used and which seemed to dip through a little winding valley. It looked so inviting that, even at the risk of offending him, I called Johann to stop – and when he had pulled up, I told him I would like to drive down that road. He made all sorts of excuses and frequently crossed himself as he spoke. This somewhat piqued my curiosity, so I asked him various questions. He answered fencingly and repeatedly looked at his watch in protest.

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     Finally I said, “Well, Johann, I want to go down this road. I shall not ask you to come unless you like; but tell me why you do not like to go, that is all I ask.” For answer he seemed to throw himself off the box, so quickly did he reach the ground. Then he stretched out his hands appealingly to me and implored me not to go. There was just enough of English mixed with the German for me to understand the drift of his talk. He seemed always just about to tell me something – the very idea of which evidently frightened him; but each time he pulled himself up saying, “Walpurgis nacht!”

I tried to argue with him, but it was difficult to argue with a man when I did not know his language. The advantage certainly rested with him, for although he began to speak in English, of a very crude and broken kind, he always got excited and broke into his native tongue – and every time he did so, he looked at his watch. Then the horses became restless and sniffed the air. At this he grew very pale, and, looking around in a frightened way, he suddenly jumped forward, took them by the bridles, and led them on some twenty feet. I followed and asked why he had done this. For an answer he crossed himself, pointed to the spot we had left, and drew his carriage in the direction of the other road, indicating a cross, and said, first in German, then in English, “Buried him – him what killed themselves.”

I remembered the old custom of burying suicides at cross roads: “Ah! I see, a suicide. How interesting!” But for the life of me I could not make out why the horses were frightened.

Whilst we were talking, we heard a sort of sound between a yelp and a bark. It was far away; but the horses got very restless, and it took Johann all his time to quiet them. He was pale and said, “It sounds like a wolf – but yet there are no wolves here now.”

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     “No?” I said, questioning him. “Isn’t it long since the wolves were so near the city?”

“Long, long,” he answered, “in the spring and summer; but with the snow the wolves have been here not so long.”

Whilst he was petting the horses and trying to quiet them, dark clouds drifted rapidly across the sky. The sunshine passed away, and a breath of cold wind seemed to drift over us. It was only a breath, however, and more of a warning than a fact, for the sun came out brightly again.

Johann looked under his lifted hand at the horizon and said, “The storm of snow, he comes before long time.” Then he looked at his watch again, and, straightway holding his reins firmly – for the horses were still pawing the ground restlessly and shaking their heads – he climbed to his box as though the time had come for proceeding on our journey.

I felt a little obstinate and did not at once get into the carriage.

“Tell me,” I said, “about this place where the road leads,” and I pointed down.

Again he crossed himself and mumbled a prayer before he answered, “It is unholy.”

“What is unholy?” I enquired.

“The village.”

“Then there is a village?”

“No, no. No one lives there hundreds of years.”

My curiosity was piqued, “But you said there was a village.”

“There was.”

“Where is it now?”

Whereupon he burst out into a long story in German and English, so mixed up that I could not quite understand exactly what he said. Roughly I gathered that long ago, hundreds of years, men had died there and been buried in their graves; but sounds were heard under the clay, and when the graves were opened, men and women were found rosy with life and their mouths red with blood. And so, in haste to save their lives (aye, and their souls! – and here he crossed himself) those who were left fled away to other places, where the living lived and the dead were dead and not – not something. He was evidently afraid to speak the last words. As he proceeded with his narration, he grew more and more excited. It seemed as if his imagination had got hold of him, and he ended in a perfect paroxysm of fear – white-faced, perspiring, trembling, and looking round him as if expecting that some dreadful presence would manifest itself there in the bright sunshine on the open plain.

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     Finally, in an agony of desperation, he cried, “Walpurgis nacht!” and pointed to the carriage for me to get in.

All my English blood rose at this, and standing back I said, “You are afraid, Johann – you are afraid. Go home, I shall return alone, the walk will do me good.” The carriage door was open. I took from the seat my oak walking stick – which I al ways carry on my holiday excursions – and closed the door, pointing back to Munich, and said, “Go home, Johann – Walpurgis nacht doesn’t concern Englishmen.”

The horses were now more restive than ever, and Johann was trying to hold them in, while excitedly imploring me not to do anything so foolish. I pitied the poor fellow, he was so deeply in earnest; but all the same I could not help laughing. His English was quite gone now. In his anxiety he had forgot ten that his only means of making me understand was to talk my language, so he jabbered away in his native German. It began to be a little tedious. After giving the direction, “Home!” I turned to go down the cross road into the valley.

With a despairing gesture, Johann turned his horses towards Munich. I leaned on my stick and looked after him. He went slowly along the road for a while, then there came over the crest of the hill a man tall and thin. I could see so much in the distance. When he drew near the horses, they began to jump and kick about, then to scream with terror. Johann could not hold them in; they bolted down the road, running away madly. I watched them out of sight, then looked for the stranger; but I found that he, too, was gone.

With a light heart I turned down the side road through the deepening valley to which Johann had objected. There was not the slightest reason, that I could see, for his objection; and I daresay I tramped for a couple of hours without thinking of time or distance and certainly without seeing a person or a house. So far as the place was concerned, it was desolation itself. But I did not notice this particularly till, on turning a bend in the road, I came upon a scattered fringe of wood; then I recognized that I had been impressed unconsciously by the desolation of the region through which I had passed.

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     I sat down to rest myself and began to look around. It struck me that it was considerably colder than it had been at the commencement of my walk – a sort of sighing sound seemed to be around me with, now and then, high overhead, a sort of muffled roar. Looking upwards I noticed that great thick clouds were drafting rapidly across the sky from north to south at a great height. There were signs of a coming storm in some lofty stratum of the air. I was a little chilly, and, thinking that it was the sitting still after the exercise of walking, I resumed my journey.

The ground I passed over was now much more picturesque. There were no striking objects that the eye might single out, but in all there was a charm of beauty. I took little heed of time, and it was only when the deepening twilight forced it self upon me that I began to think of how I should find my way home. The air was cold, and the drifting of clouds high overhead was more marked. They were accompanied by a sort of far away rushing sound, through which seemed to come at intervals that mysterious cry which the driver had said came from a wolf. For a while I hesitated. I had said I would see the deserted village, so on I went and presently came on a wide stretch of open country, shut in by hills all around. Their sides were covered with trees which spread down to the plain, dotting in clumps the gentler slopes and hollows which showed here and there. I followed with my eye the winding of the road and saw that it curved close to one of the densest of these clumps and was lost behind it.

As I looked there came a cold shiver in the air, and the snow began to fall. I thought of the miles and miles of bleak country I had passed, and then hurried on to seek shelter of the wood in front. Darker and darker grew the sky, and faster and heavier fell the snow, till the earth before and around me was a glistening white carpet the further edge of which was lost in misty vagueness. The road was here but crude, and when on the level its boundaries were not so marked as when it passed through the cuttings; and in a little while I found that I must have strayed from it, for I missed underfoot the hard surface, and my feet sank deeper in the grass and moss. Then the wind grew stronger and blew with ever increasing force, till I was fain to run before it. The air became icy- cold, and in spite of my exercise I began to suffer. The snow was now falling so thickly and whirling around me in such rap id eddies that I could hardly keep my eyes open. Every now and then the heavens were torn asunder by vivid lightning, and in the flashes I could see ahead of me a great mass of trees, chiefly yew and cypress all heavily coated with snow.

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     I was soon amongst the shelter of the trees, and there in comparative silence I could hear the rush of the wind high overhead. Presently the blackness of the storm had become merged in the darkness of the night. By-and-by the storm seemed to be passing away, it now only came in fierce puffs or blasts. At such moments the weird sound of the wolf appeared to be echoed by many similar sounds around me.

Now and again, through the black mass of drifting cloud, came a straggling ray of moonlight which lit up the expanse and showed me that I was at the edge of a dense mass of cypress and yew trees. As the snow had ceased to fall, I walked out from the shelter and began to investigate more closely. It appeared to me that, amongst so many old foundations as I had passed, there might be still standing a house in which, though in ruins, I could find some sort of shelter for a while. As I skirted the edge of the copse, I found that a low wall encircled it, and following this I presently found an opening. Here the cypresses formed an alley leading up to a square mass of some kind of building. Just as I caught sight of this, however, the drifting clouds obscured the moon, and I passed up the path in darkness. The wind must have grown colder, for I felt myself shiver as I walked; but there was hope of shelter, and I groped my way blindly on.

I stopped, for there was a sudden stillness. The storm had passed; and, perhaps in sympathy with nature’s silence, my heart seemed to cease to beat. But this was only momentarily; for suddenly the moonlight broke through the clouds showing me that I was in a graveyard and that the square object before me was a great massive tomb of marble, as white as the snow that lay on and all around it. With the moonlight there came a fierce sigh of the storm which appeared to resume its course with a long, low howl, as of many dogs or wolves. I was awed and shocked, and I felt the cold perceptibly grow upon me till it seemed to grip me by the heart. Then while the flood of moonlight still fell on the marble tomb, the storm gave further evidence of renewing, as though it were returning on its track. Impelled by some sort of fascination, I approached the sepulchre to see what it was and why such a thing stood alone in such a place. I walked around it and read, over the Doric door, in German –

<  7  >

COUNTESS DOLINGEN OF GRATZ
IN STYRIA
SOUGHT AND FOUND DEATH
1801

 

On the top of the tomb, seemingly driven through the solid marble – for the structure was composed of a few vast blocks of stone – was a great iron spike or stake. On going to the back I saw, graven in great Russian letters:

 

“The dead travel fast.”

 

There was something so weird and uncanny about the whole thing that it gave me a turn and made me feel quite faint. I began to wish, for the first time, that I had taken Johann’s advice. Here a thought struck me, which came under almost mysterious circumstances and with a terrible shock. This was Walpurgis Night!

Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of mill ions of people, the devil was abroad – when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago. This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone – unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again up on me! It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.

And now a perfect tornado burst upon me. The ground shook as though thousands of horses thundered across it; and this time the storm bore on its icy wings, not snow, but great hailstones which drove with such violence that they might have come from the thongs of Balearic slingers – hailstones that beat down leaf and branch and made the shelter of the cypresses of no more avail than though their stems were standing corn. At the first I had rushed to the nearest tree; but I was soon fain to leave it and seek the only spot that seemed to afford refuge, the deep Doric doorway of the marble tomb. There, crouching against the massive bronze door, I gained a certain amount of protection from the beating of the hail stones, for now they only drove against me as they ricochetted from the ground and the side of the marble.

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     As I leaned against the door, it moved slightly and opened inwards. The shelter of even a tomb was welcome in that pitiless tempest and I was about to enter it when there came a flash of forked lightning that lit up the whole expanse of the heavens. In the instant, as I am a living man, I saw, as my eyes turned into the darkness of the tomb, a beautiful woman with rounded cheeks and red lips, seemingly sleeping on a bier. As the thunder broke overhead, I was grasped as by the hand of a giant and hurled out into the storm. The whole thing was so sudden that, before I could realize the shock, moral as well as physical, I found the hailstones beating me down. At the same time I had a strange, dominating feeling that I was not alone. I looked towards the tomb. Just then there came another blinding flash which seemed to strike the iron stake that surmounted the tomb and to pour through to the earth, blasting and crumbling the marble, as in a burst of flame. The dead woman rose for a moment of agony while she was lapped in the flame, and her bitter scream of pain was drowned in the thundercrash. The last thing I heard was this mingling of dreadful sound, as again I was seized in the giant grasp and dragged away, while the hailstones beat on me and the air around seemed reverberant with the howling of wolves. The last sight that I remembered was a vague, white, moving mass, as if all the graves around me had sent out the phantoms of their sheeted dead, and that they were closing in on me through the white cloudiness of the driving hail.

Gradually there came a sort of vague beginning of consciousness, then a sense of weariness that was dreadful. For a time I remembered nothing, but slowly my senses returned. My feet seemed positively racked with pain, yet I could not move them. They seemed to be numbed. There was an icy feeling at the back of my neck and all down my spine, and my ears, like my feet, were dead yet in torment; but there was in my breast a sense of warmth which was by comparison delicious. It was as a nightmare – a physical nightmare, if one may use such an expression; for some heavy weight on my chest made it difficult for me to breathe.

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     This period of semi-lethargy seemed to remain a long time, and as it faded away I must have slept or swooned. Then came a sort of loathing, like the first stage of seasickness, and a wild desire to be free of something – I knew not what. A vast stillness enveloped me, as though all the world were asleep or dead – only broken by the low panting as of some animal close to me. I felt a warm rasping at my throat, then came a consciousness of the awful truth which chilled me to the heart and sent the blood surging up through my brain. Some great animal was lying on me and now licking my throat. I feared to stir, for some instinct of prudence bade me lie still; but the brute seemed to realize that there was now some change in me, for it raised its head. Through my eyelashes I saw above me the two great flaming eyes of a gigantic wolf. Its sharp white teeth gleamed in the gaping red mouth, and I could feel its hot breath fierce and acrid upon me.

For another spell of time I remembered no more. Then I be came conscious of a low growl, followed by a yelp, renewed again and again. Then seemingly very far away, I heard a “Hol loa! holloa!” as of many voices calling in unison. Cautiously I raised my head and looked in the direction whence the sound came, but the cemetery blocked my view. The wolf still continued to yelp in a strange way, and a red glare began to move round the grove of cypresses, as though following the sound. As the voices drew closer, the wolf yelped faster and louder. I feared to make either sound or motion. Nearer came the red glow over the white pall which stretched into the darkness a round me. Then all at once from beyond the trees there came at a trot a troop of horsemen bearing torches. The wolf rose from my breast and made for the cemetery. I saw one of the horsemen (soldiers by their caps and their long military cloaks) raise his carbine and take aim. A companion knocked up his arm, and I heard the ball whiz over my head. He had evidently taken my body for that of the wolf. Another sighted the animal as it slunk away, and a shot followed. Then, at a gallop, the troop rode forward – some towards me, others following the wolf as it disappeared amongst the snow-clad cypresses.

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     As they drew nearer I tried to move but was powerless, al though I could see and hear all that went on around me. Two or three of the soldiers jumped from their horses and knelt beside me. One of them raised my head and placed his hand over my heart.

“Good news, comrades!” he cried. “His heart still beats!”

Then some brandy was poured down my throat; it put vigor into me, and I was able to open my eyes fully and look around. Lights and shadows were moving among the trees, and I heard men call to one another. They drew together, uttering frightened exclamations; and the lights flashed as the others came pouring out of the cemetery pell-mell, like men possessed. When the further ones came close to us, those who were around me asked them eagerly, “Well, have you found him?”

The reply rang out hurriedly, “No! no! Come away quick – quick! This is no place to stay, and on this of all nights!”

“What was it?” was the question, asked in all manner of keys. The answer came variously and all indefinitely as though the men were moved by some common impulse to speak yet were restrained by some common fear from giving their thoughts.

“It – it – indeed!” gibbered one, whose wits had plainly given out for the moment.

“A wolf – and yet not a wolf!” another put in shudderingly.

“No use trying for him without the sacred bullet,” a third remarked in a more ordinary manner.

“Serve us right for coming out on this night! Truly we have earned our thousand marks!” were the ejaculations of a fourth.

“There was blood on the broken marble,” another said after a pause, “the lightning never brought that there. And for him- -is he safe? Look at his throat! See comrades, the wolf has been lying on him and keeping his blood warm.”

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     The officer looked at my throat and replied, “He is all right, the skin is not pierced. What does it all mean? We should never have found him but for the yelping of the wolf.”

“What became of it?” asked the man who was holding up my head and who seemed the least panic-stricken of the party, for his hands were steady and without tremor. On his sleeve was the chevron of a petty officer.

“It went home,” answered the man, whose long face was pall id and who actually shook with terror as he glanced around him fearfully. “There are graves enough there in which it may lie. Come, comrades – come quickly! Let us leave this cursed spot.”

The officer raised me to a sitting posture, as he uttered a word of command; then several men placed me upon a horse. He sprang to the saddle behind me, took me in his arms, gave the word to advance; and, turning our faces away from the cypresses, we rode away in swift military order.

As yet my tongue refused its office, and I was perforce silent. I must have fallen asleep; for the next thing I remembered was finding myself standing up, supported by a soldier on each side of me. It was almost broad daylight, and to the north a red streak of sunlight was reflected like a path of blood over the waste of snow. The officer was telling the men to say nothing of what they had seen, except that they found an English stranger, guarded by a large dog.

“Dog! that was no dog,” cut in the man who had exhibited such fear. “I think I know a wolf when I see one.”

The young officer answered calmly, “I said a dog.”

“Dog!” reiterated the other ironically. It was evident that his courage was rising with the sun; and, pointing to me, he said, “Look at his throat. Is that the work of a dog, master?”

<  12  >

     Instinctively I raised my hand to my throat, and as I touched it I cried out in pain. The men crowded round to look, some stooping down from their saddles; and again there came the calm voice of the young officer, “A dog, as I said. If aught else were said we should only be laughed at.”

I was then mounted behind a trooper, and we rode on into the suburbs of Munich. Here we came across a stray carriage into which I was lifted, and it was driven off to the Quatre Saisons – the young officer accompanying me, whilst a trooper followed with his horse, and the others rode off to their barracks.

When we arrived, Herr Delbruck rushed so quickly down the steps to meet me, that it was apparent he had been watching within. Taking me by both hands he solicitously led me in. The officer saluted me and was turning to withdraw, when I recognized his purpose and insisted that he should come to my rooms. Over a glass of wine I warmly thanked him and his brave comrades for saving me. He replied simply that he was more than glad, and that Herr Delbruck had at the first taken steps to make all the searching party pleased; at which ambiguous utterance the maitre d’hotel smiled, while the officer plead- duty and withdrew.

“But Herr Delbruck,” I enquired, “how and why was it that the soldiers searched for me?”

He shrugged his shoulders, as if in depreciation of his own deed, as he replied, “I was so fortunate as to obtain leave from the commander of the regiment in which I serve, to ask for volunteers.”

“But how did you know I was lost?” I asked.

“The driver came hither with the remains of his carriage, which had been upset when the horses ran away.”

“But surely you would not send a search party of soldiers merely on this account?”

<  13  >

     “Oh, no!” he answered, “but even before the coachman arrived, I had this telegram from the Boyar whose guest you are,” and he took from his pocket a telegram which he handed to me, and I read:

 

Bistritz.

Be careful of my guest – his safety is most precious to me. Should aught happen to him, or if he be missed, spare nothing to find him and ensure his safety. He is English and therefore adventurous. There are often dangers from snow and wolves and night. Lose not a moment if you suspect harm to him. I answer your zeal with my fortune.

– Dracula.

 

As I held the telegram in my hand, the room seemed to whirl around me, and if the attentive maitre d’hotel had not caught me, I think I should have fallen. There was something so strange in all this, something so weird and impossible to imagine, that there grew on me a sense of my being in some way the sport of opposite forces – the mere vague idea of which seemed in a way to paralyze me. I was certainly under some form of mysterious protection. From a distant country had come, in the very nick of time, a message that took me out of the danger of the snow sleep and the jaws of the wolf.




THE BLACK CAT

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not – and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified – have tortured – have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but horror – to many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace – some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and, in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature of the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.

I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.

<  2  >

     This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point – and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.

Pluto – this was the cat’s name – was my favourite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.

Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character – through the instrumentality of the fiend Intemperance – had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me – for what disease is like alcohol? – and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish – even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill-temper.

One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame. I took from my waistcoat pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.

<  3  >

     When reason returned with the morning – when I had slept off the fumes of the night’s debauch – I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.

In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart – one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself – to offer violence to its own nature – to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only – that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree – hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart – hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence – hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it – if such a thing were possible – even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.

<  4  >

     On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of ‘Fire!’ The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a servant, and myself, made our escape from the conflagration. The destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair.

I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts, and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect. On the day succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls, with one exception, had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had here, in great measure, resisted the action of the fire – a fact which I attributed to its having been recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention. The words ‘strange!’ ‘singular!’ and other similar expressions, excited my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas-relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal’s neck.

When I first beheld this apparition – for I could scarcely regard it as less – my wonder and my terror were extreme. But at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd – by some one of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.

<  5  >

     Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid myself of the phantasm of the cat; and, during this period, there came back into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse. I went so far as to regret the loss of the animal, and to look about me, among the vile haunts which I now habitually frequented, for another pet of the same species, and of somewhat similar appearance, with which to supply its place.

One night as I sat, half-stupefied, in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of gin, or of rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand. It was a black cat – a very large one – fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite, splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast.

Upon my touching him, he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and appeared delighted with my notice. This, then, was the very creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of the landlord; but this person made no claim to it – knew nothing of it – had never seen it before.

I continued my caresses, and when I prepared to go home, the animal evinced a disposition to accompany me. I permitted it to do so; occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favourite with my wife.

<  6  >

     For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated; but – I know not how or why it was – its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed me. By slow degrees, these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred. I avoided the creature; a certain sense of shame, and the remembrance of my former deed of cruelty, preventing me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some weeks, strike, or otherwise violently ill- use it; but gradually – very gradually – I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence.

What added, no doubt, to my hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after I brought it home, that, like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to my wife, who, as I have already said, possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and purest pleasures.

With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk, it would get between my feet, and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly – let me confess it at once – by absolute dread of the beast.

This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil – and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own – yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own – that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees – degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my reason struggled to reject as fanciful – it had, at length, resumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name – and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared – it was now, I say, the image of a hideous – of a ghastly thing – of the GALLOWS! – oh, mournful and terrible engine of horror and of crime – of agony and death!

<  7  >

     And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere humanity. And a brute beast – whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed – a brute beast to work out for me – for me, a man, fashioned in the image of the High God – so much of insufferable woe! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight – an incarnate nightmare that I had no power to shake off – incumbent eternally upon my heart!

Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates – the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.

One day she accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal had it descended as I wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded, by the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp, and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan.

This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to the task of concealing the body. I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the neighbours. Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments and destroying them by fire. At another, I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it into the well in the yard – about packing it in a box, as if merchandise, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either of these. I determined to wall it up in the cellar – as the monks of the Middle Ages are recorded to have walled up their victims.

<  8  >

     For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fire-place, that had been filled up and made to resemble the rest of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect anything suspicious.

And in this calculation I was not deceived. By means of a crowbar I easily dislodged the bricks, and having carefully deposited the body against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while, with little trouble, I relaid the whole structure as it originally stood. Having procured mortar, sand, and hair, with every possible precaution, I prepared a plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and with this I very carefully went over the new brickwork. When I had finished, I felt satisfied that all was right. The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed. The rubbish on the floor was picked up with the minutest care. I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself, ‘Here at least, then, my labour has not been in vain.’

My next step was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so much wretchedness; for I had, at length, firmly resolved to put it to death. Had I been able to meet with it at the moment, there could have been no doubt of its fate; but it appeared that the crafty animal had been alarmed at the violence of my previous anger, and forbore to present itself in my present mood. It is impossible to describe, or to imagine, the deep, the blissful sense of relief which the absence of the detested creature occasioned in my bosom. It did not make its appearance during the night – and thus for one night at least, since its introduction into the house, I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even with the burden of murder upon my soul!

<  9  >

     The second and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not. Once again I breathed as a free man. The monster, in terror, had fled the premises for ever! I should behold it no more! My happiness was supreme! The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries had been made, but these had been readily answered. Even a search had been instituted – but of course nothing was to be discovered. I looked upon my future felicity as secured.

Upon the fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came, very unexpectedly, into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the premises. Secure, however, in the inscrutability of my place of concealment, I felt no embarrassment whatever. The officers bade me accompany them in their search. They left no nook or corner unexplored. At length, for the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar. I quivered not in a muscle. My heart beat calmly as that of one who slumbers in innocence. I walked the cellar from end to end. I folded my arms upon my bosom, and roamed easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied, and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness.

‘Gentlemen,’ I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, ‘I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By-the-by, gentlemen, this – this is a very well-constructed house.’ (In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.) ‘I may say an excellently well-constructed house. These walls – are you going, gentlemen? – these walls are solidly put together’; and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brickwork behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.

<  10  >

     But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs on the Arch- Fiend! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb! – by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.

Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!




THE KNEELER

The day after I arrived, I awoke to a grey morning, drizzly rain outside. I pulled back the heavy drapes in the main room, a cavernous space, and looked again at my new abode. The room was sparsely furnished with old heavy furniture. This must have been the living room — looked like the set of the interior of the home in Long Day’s Journey into Night. I had studied O’Neill’s play while taking a theater class and could visualize the man and his two grown sons sitting around the table in the middle of this room. I imagined a bottle of whiskey on the table and the chink of three glasses. As the men drank into the night, they talked, doing their best to break each other’s hearts, while a doped-up Mom roamed about upstairs. I also had a father who had two sons as had his father.

In a small chamber off the living room, I came across a kneeler. It was wooden with a red cushion for the knees. Something I would expect to see in a church rather than a private home. In the light of a high, stained glass window, I saw that the kneeler was the only piece of furniture in the room and saw how two bony knees had worn away the red velvet of the cushion. There was a picture of Jesus on the wall in a cheap plastic frame, like something a kid would buy at a Woolworth’s store. I sort of liked the kneeler. It had a sloped shelf on which to rest the forearms. I could imagine it as a prop for a bit — The Atheist at Prayer. I laughed to myself and thought if Babylon was good enough for Rodney Dangerfield to reside in, it was good enough for me. I wondered if he’d known any of my family here and if they had given him any respect. I laughed to myself. But my laughter stopped when I recalled how my father would say in a dour tone, “It’s good to hear you laugh.”

*

Yesterday, after driving west on Ocean Parkway, I left my old Jeep down the road, deciding to find the house on foot. It would be fun to find it as I walked along the beach. An old spinster great aunt had died, and my family offered me the place in Babylon for a couple of months to clear my head and decide what I was going to do with my life. I was almost thirty.

Writing hadn’t worked out, neither had marine biology. And I’d quit my day job. For the last year or so, hanging out in comedy clubs in South Florida, from time to time I’d be asked to introduce comics and even do a small bit now and then. But after being crucified on stage more than once, I had begun to doubt myself, and the random laughter from the audiences had failed to still my inner demons. My folks worried about me and decided that going out of state and getting away from my evil influences would be good for me. I was dissipated, too much alcohol, not enough sleep, living on Red Bull. My comic friends called me Gloomy Gus because I looked so sad. So sad that it was kind of funny. The name stuck, sort of became my shtick.

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     *

Walking in the sand was tough going. Coarse and damp, not the white, soft sand of home. The sun had gone behind a cloud, and a chilly wind had begun to blow. The sea was a dark grey except where the waves broke. Growing up on the Gulf in sunny St. Petersburg had been an easy life. Shorts and flip-flops most of the time. But my ancestors who had settled in New York and summered by the ocean on the south shore of Long Island must have been hardy folk.

As I trudged along, I took a gulp of Red Bull (my last for a while). Then I saw it. The house had been built on a rise at the top of the beach. On a dune. It was old, dark, and weather-beaten. Images of long-gone and forgotten relatives rose in my mind. The house was sinister. It even had a turret. The gray paint was peeling, and what was left of the striped awnings was torn. A single chair on the porch rocked in the wind. I felt a chill run through my body as I took in the lonely stretch of beach, the rock jetties, and the bleakness of the dilapidated house. More of my parents’ tough love. I should have known.

As I climbed the wooden steps to the porch that wrapped the back and sides of the house, I thought of my great-uncle Jerome. He’d been awarded a Silver Star in the Second World War but never made it home. Shot in the back by a German soldier. His handwritten letters had been saved and typed up by his grieving father, my great-grandfather. As I walked along the porch peering into windows, I thought of my great-grandfather whose legs had been paralyzed while he worked as a sandhog digging a tunnel for the New York City subway system — boring through solid rock to feed his family. We had a family historian, my third cousin Pete, who had informed us about all the dead Kellys.

I followed the porch around to the side. Standing upright, all prim and proper, a tiny pair of women’s black galoshes, like rain boots from the forties, two little buttons on the side, appeared to be waiting for the return of their owner. They must have belonged to my great aunt who had cloistered herself in this house for decades. Taking the worn key from my pocket, I unlocked the door and stepped inside, only to be enveloped by a day-time darkness.

I had entered the kitchen and found the end of a stale loaf of raisin bread on the table. It fell apart when I touched it, the bread dry and the raisins hard as little pebbles. My great-aunt Teresa’s last supper had been meager. Why had this woman renounced the everyday world, choosing instead to live in such a remote place?

I had to get back into town for something to eat. And then I would bring my Jeep closer. Going out the front door and through a border of tall, overgrown hedges, I found myself feeling uneasy anticipating my first night in this strange house by the sea. But I had prepared for it — I had a lantern and a bedroll.

In town, the village of Babylon, I drove along the main drag until I saw Peg’s Diner. Pulling up in front, I saw a Wi-Fi notice in the window. Good to know. As I munched on a big, juicy burger, I thought of the little rubber boots and the raisin bread and how my great-aunt had spent those long hours alone (as I would be doing) in a drab corner of that ramshackle house.

I texted my parents, “Arrived safely. May be off the grid for a while.”

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     *

After finding the kneeler on my second day, I continued exploring the house. So many doors, windows, hallways, porches, balconies, the house seemed to go on forever. And I wasn’t the only interloper. Raccoons had had the run of the place, and still did, as exhibited by the varied ages of their scattered turds, from old powdery white and dry to fresh moist and glistening. Made me think of Grey Gardens where Little Edie fed Cheerios to her invading raccoons. I headed up the main staircase to the second floor. More of the same. A general state of decay, disintegration, dirt. I found a stack of bodybuilding magazines, page after page of nearly naked men. What was that all about? I grabbed a handful of Coronets from another stack. The debris of my dead relatives became one with my own dismal sense of failure. Nothing left but a gaping emptiness within crumbling walls.

Inside a doorway, I found another staircase, this one leading to the third floor. I panicked at the never-ending rooms and floors. I hurried back down to the first floor and ran out the side door, tripping over my great-aunt’s galoshes.

Once outside I headed down to the shore in spite of the drizzle. The wind off the sea blew my hair into my face. As I pulled out the pony holder that held my hair in place, it broke. Not having another one, I decided to let my hair go wild, whipped about by the wind. It felt good. Alone on the beach, I gathered that it was way past Labor Day and the vacationers had returned home.

Going back inside, I strode from the back of the house to the front, exited, hopped into my Jeep, and headed to the village to find the power company. The woman at the counter eyed me a bit suspiciously, must have been the hair, but when I told her who I was and what I needed, she became helpful. “So sad about Miss Teresa,” she said. “So where are you from, Gus?”

“Florida. I’m beginning to regret not coming up here while my great-aunt was still living. I wish I could have known her.”

I saw that the woman wore a Virgin Mary medallion around her neck.

“Well, she stuck to herself,” the woman continued in a loud, brassy voice. “Liked her own company, I guess. Didn’t need anyone or anything. I heard that she lived in the old family house by herself ever since her parents stopped her from becoming a nun. She took a vow of silence, after all. Her mother needed help with the old man after the elder son was killed in the war. But Teresa refused and came out here to live by herself — only eighteen years old. She lived like a hermit. Are you named for St. Gustav the Hermit?”

“I don’t know. Probably. My parents had me baptized, so they had to give me a saint’s name.”

Getting back to the business at hand, the woman said, “Miss Teresa only used the first floor, she saw no sense in wiring up the whole house. Will you be here through the winter?”

“Haven’t decided yet.”

“Miss Teresa got by with a couple of space heaters, and I guess she used the stove in the kitchen, maybe the fireplace. But it gets cold out there. Thought I’d warn you. You being from Florida and all.”

I paid the deposit and said, “Well thank you much, Mam.”

As I left, she called after me, “The name’s Joan, and there’s a barbershop over on Central.”

<  4  >

     *

Later that day, I had driven back from the village, parked along the curb, and walked along the property on the street side. The front yard had grown wild. I wasn’t much of a gardener, but anyone can pick up dead branches. I discovered the mailbox; rose bushes had grown around it. “Ow, damn.” I pricked my finger on a thorn while opening the dented metal box stuck on the end of a rusty pole. Not much inside. Some yellowed junk mail, and a crinkled letter. I brought the mail inside to sort later.

I walked through to the back of the house. I preferred the beach side. I shook out my bedroll and made myself a little hidey-hole in a corner. As I hauled the rest of my gear in from the Jeep, I imagined myself, for a moment, hauling it back out again. I didn’t want to stay in that spooky old house. There was a heavy table in the kitchen shoved up against the wall. The lamp on it had a torn silk shade. My eyes followed the frayed cord to an outlet. I turned the lamp on. Nothing yet. On the grimy floor, the checkerboard linoleum had rolled up around the appliances. A battered water heater stood in the corner next to the sink. I would have to wait for the electricity to see if the fridge or stove worked.

Then I put my toothbrush and TP in the bathroom. It was a small bathroom off the kitchen: a sink, a toilet, and a cracked mirror. I guessed I’d have to go upstairs to wash up. But, damn, there wouldn’t be any power up there.

I heard a horn blowing out front. The power man had arrived. When I opened the door, he was standing there. “Hey, buddy,” he said in a loud friendly way.

“Hello, my name is Gus Kelly.”

“I know” he said, and then he giggled. “This will just take a minute,” he said, going to the side of the house.

Before long I heard a tap at the door.

“Come on in,” I called.

He came in, looking about the house. “Odd,” he said, “Hurricane Sandy did a lot of damage out here a couple years back, but this place was spared. Glad it didn’t take the red maple. It was planted for Jerome. I guess he’d be your great-uncle, the one killed in WWII. What a shame that was, twenty-four years old. I’ll leave these with you,” he said, handing me some fuses. “The wiring is old and you’re likely to blow a fuse.” He giggled again.

Together, we checked the fridge; the stove and water heater it turned out used gas.

The lamp on the table had come on. It cast a yellow stain on the floor. Strands of torn silk like the white feathery hair of a malnourished child hung from the base of its shade.

“Son. I’m Frank. If you need anything you can always find me in town. You met my sister Joan this morning at the power company.” I saw that he also wore a religious medallion around his neck, his being the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“Thanks, Frank,” I said. “But I’m sure I’ll be okay. I’m here to do some thinking, taking a time out. Maybe do some writing. I’m a comedian.”

“You don’t say. I never took the Kellys to be funny people.”

“Oh when we get together, we laugh ’til we puke. That’s the tentative plan for this place, family reunions. There’d be room for everyone, we’d be right on the beach, and Manhattan’s not far away.”

“I guess the younger Kellys are different from the older Kellys. The ones I knew were quite solemn, pious.”

“Families change over time. When the Kellys came to America in the mid-1800s, they were religious. Irish, you know. Many devout nuns and priests, I’ve heard. But now we’re a bunch of regular fuck-ups. Oops, probably shouldn’t have said that. My dad would kill me.”

“Gus, things might get weird out here.”

“Weird?” I asked.

“Some folks claim this place is haunted.”

“Hey, I’m supposed to be the one with the jokes.”

<  5  >

     *

Noticing that I had worked up quite an itch, I searched the first floor for a bathroom with a tub. I needed to take a shower. Next to the little room with the kneeler, instead of a bathroom, I found a bedroom. The bed was narrow, like a little kid’s bed. A crucifix was carved in the center of the wooden headboard. The mattress was so damp to my touch, I jerked my hand away, and the pillow was stained with yellowed blotches of night drool. Rosary beads lay on the nightstand. Large black beads with a big silver crucifix. Like a nun’s rosary. I’d heard that Teresa had dedicated a single bead of her rosary to each member of her extended family. And in that way she prayed for all of us. It didn’t take me long to notice the funky old woman smell. Closing the door, I swore never to return to the foulness behind it.

I headed upstairs. If I was going to wash, I wanted to do it before nightfall. I walked quickly along the hallway, opening doors and peering into rooms unoccupied for a long time. Behind one door was a bathroom. When I turned on the taps in the sink, a bit of brown water sputtered out, then nothing. The claw-foot tub was not inviting. Seeing there was no shower, I didn’t bother with the tub’s faucets.

I was tempted to explore the third floor. I imagined that it was full of old junk, some of which could be valuable. I might find some heirlooms to bring back home. Mom would like that. My hand was on the door that opened to the attic stairway, but I panicked and didn’t stop running until I was back in the kitchen.

I took a whore bath at the sink. The water was icy cold. I would have to get that gas turned on. Decided my hair could wait until then. I dried off with a T-shirt. It was the end of September and the days had shortened. Shadows from the setting sun played on the walls. The drapes hung, dusty and threadbare, so fragile I decided to leave them open. I figured my hidey-hole was private enough in its corner away from the windows. I felt tired and lonely and sad and a bit frightened in the big old house, so I crashed early.

I had spread out on my bedroll and closed my eyes. My dirty scalp tickled. As I scratched at my head, I noticed that the hair at the nape of my neck had started to form dreadlocks. Then I drifted off to sleep. In my dreams I once again stood at the bottom of the attic stairway. With trepidation I climbed the stairs and found more rooms and more stairs. As I ascended through the house, the rooms became larger, more opulent, and a whole lot stranger. People lived in some of the rooms, but I didn’t know them. I stopped, my heart pounding, unable to go on.

I woke to the sound of something creaking on the porch. The wind must be moving the rocking chair I had seen out there. But as I continued to listen, it sounded more like a heavy body dragging itself along the porch with a broken shopping cart. I sat up and pressed myself against the wall wishing that I had closed the drapes. The sound of the cart and the heft of the body it bore continued along the length of the porch and then faded away. I crept out onto the porch to see if there might be a homeless person hanging around, squatting, thinking the place was still empty. It appeared likely as the reek of piss hit me. My head began to ache. Felt like someone was tightening a vise around it. I didn’t see anyone, but the urine stench pushed me back inside.

To tackle my fear and relieve the pressure in my head, I got up and brought the kitchen lamp into my hidey-hole. I wanted to do some comedy. Moving the kneeler from the prayer room, I noticed that the shelf on top functioned as a lid and concealed a compartment. I knelt in the grooves made by my great-aunt. How many hours she must have prayed, and for what?

“Good evening, Folks,” I said. “My great-aunt Teresa was a very religious person and when she died, she willed her kneeler to me. Yeah, I’m the gloomy one, the one most likely to pray, I guess. (He imagined a slight titter in the audience). Well, my family was so religious, they had many sacred traditions, like holding onto the rosary while having sex. (A laugh that time). So the story goes, according to his wife, my grandmother, the crucifix on the end of the rosary got embedded in my grandfather’s head when he was in utero. And that’s why he was such a crazy bastard. (A loud laugh).

Chuckling to myself, I got up from the kneeler, turned off the lamp, and crawled back into my bedroll.

<  6  >

     *

I woke up with a headache. I thought after a good night’s sleep it would have gone away. Took an Advil and headed out for a walk on the beach. More drizzle. While walking, I thought about the bit I did last night. Planned to type it up on my laptop. I sensed defeat though, nothing’s funny when you have a headache. I also planned to go into the village for a cup of coffee and see about getting the gas turned on so I could wash my ratty hair.

*

And so the days inched by. The front yard was looking pretty good. I freed the mailbox from the rose bush. My daily routine began with a whore bath in the kitchen sink. I would stick my wooly head under the tap, but the weak trickle of water probably didn’t penetrate through my dreads to my scalp, ditto the beard. Then I would take a long walk along the shore.

One day at low tide, I noticed breathing holes in the wet sand and dug up some clams. Big motherfuckers! As I knelt in the swash digging with a clam shell, the wet-plop as the sand fell from between my fingers and the scrape of the hard shells when I found a clam filled me with a child-like happiness. With what remained of the marine biologist in me, I recalled the scientific name for the surf clams: Spisula solidissima. Then, noticing that the temperature was plummeting, I collected a big pile of driftwood for the fireplace. Earlier, I had bought a high-powered flashlight for future exploration of the second and third floors. I was especially curious about the turret. I have to admit it. I was scared as a six-year old, but I wanted to check out that turret. I imagined that I would find the secret that would explain why weird shit happened here. And I’d worked on some bits. This religious comedy was new to me, but it gave me something to go with. I was still troubled by headaches, and my dreadlocks pulled tighter. I wondered if they could be related — the headaches and the dreads. Some of the dreads coiled against my scalp, I imagined that soon I would look like a Persian lamb. I’m growing my beard in, too. I’m quite the hairy one. Creepy occurrences were happening, but I hadn’t called on Frank, the power man. I didn’t want him to think that I was losing it. But whenever I looked for the kneeler, I would find that it had been moved. I kept it in my hidey-hole for inspiration, but someone was determined to mess with it. Maybe a squatter came in when I was out. And my nightmares of never-ending floors and staircases and rooms recurred nightly.

My visitor with the shopping cart had come again. He dragged himself back and forth along the porch, pacing like a man with damaged legs. I sensed that he waited for someone to come home. Perhaps it was the ghost of my great-grandfather, and what sounded like a shopping cart was his canes. I knew he had walked with two wooden canes. Yeah, that’s right. I’m starting to believe in ghosts. Must be some comedy there. Boo!

<  7  >

     *

One evening, I sat at the heavy kitchen table finally getting around to sorting the mail. Most of it was junk, which I tossed. There was a letter addressed to Teresa Kelly. Not knowing what to do with it, I set it aside. I would later forward it to my mom. As I sat there, I happened to rub my hands along the underside of the table, and I could feel deep indentations as if someone had gripped the side of the table so hard with their fingernails that they had made ridges. I had heard that my great-grandfather had powerful arms with which he brutally beat his sons. Could a kid have made those gouges while being beaten? My cousin Pete was the one who told me that my great-grandfather had been a sandhog who had gotten caisson disease, or the bends, while rescuing another immigrant laborer when a tunnel began to fill with the East River. After spending his twenty-sixth year on a waterbed in a hospital, my great-grandfather — who ended up working for a labor union — was left with paralyzed legs. Hence, his powerful arms and his child-beating prowess. I also connected the awful stench of stale piss on the porch with the fact that he had died of kidney failure, a delayed effect of the bends.

But I had also heard that my great-grandmother gave birth at home on a kitchen table. She may have been the gouger. What a life these people had. Can’t find any humor in any of that.

I decided to go to bed. The cold briny air made me sleepy. I had found the space heaters in a closet under the stairs. And I found a floor lamp that I had put in my corner. Strangely, the kneeler stood where I had left it. Turning on the heaters and the lamp, I cozied up under a blanket and picked up a book, a going-away gift from my friend Annie: Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. As I read about the author’s happy childhood growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia, I contemplated my not-so-happy childhood growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida. My parents fought all the time, hurling chairs and the most painful insults at each other while I hid in my room, reading with my hands over my ears. Once again, I was escaping into a book, getting lost in Nabokov’s memoir. I wished Annie was here, so we could talk about it. Annie and I were buddies, the person I missed the most. I turned off the light to think about her.

I drifted off to sleep, listening to the rhythmic pounding of the ocean and the water hitting the stone jetty. I dreamt that I had positioned myself on the kneeler in a comedy club. Instead of doing stand-up, I was doing kneel-down. As I bent over the kneeler, the audience laughed loudly. A big guy was standing in front of me. He stood close. I watched as he slowly moved his big knuckled fingers up and down the fly of his heavy-duty work pants. I was mesmerized by the whiteness of his hand and the coppery-colored hairs that sprang from it. I had this big stupid grin on my face. Then I noticed that the kneeler had turned into a trap. I was held by my ankles and wrists as if I were put in the pillory. The howling audience rolled in the aisles.

<  8  >

     *

I woke up in the dark to the soft sound of a violin. The piece sounded amateurish but sweet and heartfelt, reminding me of those rare happy days playing Jedi Knight as a child with other children in an empty field, a Tatooine of our imagination. The melody drifted — eerie and celestial, yet impish — from the dark recesses of the window seat adjacent to my hidey-hole. As I strained my eyes trying to see into the darkness, the kneeler caught my eye. It had been moved again. On it, a figure, small and bent and covered in a long shawl, silently fingered a rosary. Then the little creature opened the lid of the kneeler and fondled something inside. First, the music faded away and then the apparition of the woman (my great-aunt Teresa?) vanished. But that nasty smell, that old lady funk lingered. My head hurt, and my face felt stretched as if pulled back violently by my dreadlocks. I put my head in my hands, and the dreads clinging to my scalp pulsated. My fingers became entwined with my hair and rooted to my head. As I pulled desperately trying to free my hands, I broke through and heard a racket that sounded like BB pellets hitting the hard oak floor. I turned on the floor lamp and saw the black beads of Teresa’s rosary strewn about the room. Turning toward the kneeler, a dreadful curiosity rose in me, compelling me to see what the compartment held. As I lifted the lid, I saw knotted rope. I lifted the rough, hairy coils out, uncovering what lay beneath them — two chains with straps, one longer than the other, both covered with blood-encrusted spikes. Wearable barbed wire. I shuddered with disbelief. Gagged by the smell, I dropped the rope. I knew about flagellation, Bergman’s Seventh Seal being my favorite movie, but that smell of old blood and imagining my aunt scourging her flesh filled me with a sickening fear.

*

Mid-morning of the next day, a knock came at the kitchen door. It had taken me a while to get back to sleep after my fright the night before. So I had slept later than usual.

“Are you there, Gus?” I heard that too loud voice of Joan from the power company.

Then I recognized Frank’s nervous giggle. “It’s just us chickens,” he said.

“Coming,” I called.

“Good morning,” I said, opening the door.

Joan and her brother Frank stood there with big smiles on their faces. Upon seeing me, their smiles shrank.

“Brought you a few essentials from the village,” Frank said.

“Thank you,” I replied. “Let me help you with those.” The three of us placed the bundles on the table. “You can give me the receipt and I’ll repay you when I drive into the village. Need to go to the ATM.”

Along with the groceries, they had brought three cups of take-out coffee, and we each took a seat at the table.

“Are you okay?” Joan asked, looking at me with concern.

“Not sleeping well,” I said, hoping that that would explain my disheveled appearance.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look like homemade shit,” Joan said.

“Now, now,” Frank said. “A young guy living by himself is bound to let a few things slide.”

“But your eyes,” Joan insisted. “What dark circles.”

“Like I said, not sleeping well.”

“So what’s keeping you up at night?” Joan asked.

“Lonely, I guess.” I couldn’t tell them that I was afraid of an old lady ghost and her rosary beads.

“Nothing weird going on?” Frank asked. “You haven’t seen any ghosts, have you?”

“Nope,” I said. “This coffee is good. Nice and strong. Just how I like it. You know, Joan, Frank, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in anything supernatural. If I saw a ‘ghost’ (I made air quotes), I’d figure I was seeing things.”

“Have you been seeing things?” they asked in unison.

“Of course not, that would be crazy.”

Standing up to go, Frank said, “Tomorrow is Sunday. Have you been by St. Joseph’s?”

“Didn’t I tell you that I’m an atheist? I asked.

“Yes,” said Joan. “But nobody’s really an atheist. Certainly not a Kelly. The Kellys never missed Mass on Sunday or Rosary and Mass every Wednesday evening. Well, if you need anything, you know where to find us.”

“Thank you for stopping by,” I said, closing the door behind them.

I hurried into the bathroom to look at my face in the mirror. I wanted to see what Frank and Joan were so concerned about. The mirror was small, corroded, and cracked, so it was understandable if my face appeared distorted. Nonetheless, I was disturbed by what I saw. My face appeared stretched, my nose slightly flattened, my eyes half-closed, and my mouth really wide, like the stretched-leather face of a mummy I had seen at the King Tut exhibit back home. My beard had grown in willy-nilly, and my hair — I’d never seen anything like it. The dreads snaked all over my head — Medusa-like.

<  9  >

     *

Later that day, hoping no one would notice my freakish appearance, I drove into the village. The fall colors were amazing. The trees! And the brisk air, so refreshing. The never-ending drizzle had finally let up. My mind felt sharper than it ever had in sleepy St. Pete. I stopped by the ATM and then the power company to reimburse Joan for the groceries. After that, I headed over to Peg’s Diner. I missed the Internet. I took my laptop in and ordered up a burger and fries. Had an email from my mother. She said that she had received the letter I had forwarded to her, the letter I had found in the mailbox addressed to Teresa Kelly. She went on to say that it had been sent by Pete who sometime after he wrote the letter had been put in an old folks’ home for dementia. In the letter, however, he had promised to fulfill a final request of Teresa’s, to give her kneeler to her grandnephew Gus Kelly.

I thought how I had been joking when I pretended that she had willed her kneeler to me. It was part of my act. I felt suckered, as if the kneeler was a trap that had been intentionally set for me.

My mother wrote, “It’s nothing you’d be interested in, but if you find it, bring it home. Your father may want his aunt’s kneeler. And it could be valuable.”

As I scrolled through, I saw Annie’s name, Subject: miss u.

Now that made me happy. I told her that I missed her too and was enjoying the book she had given me.

*

Driving back to the house, I was confident of a good night’s sleep. I had eaten a big supper and was happy about Annie’s email. I shrugged off the bad dreams and the hallucinations; it was obvious to me that living in this shithole of my dead relatives put bizarre junk in my head.

I bedded down in my hidey-hole with Annie’s gift, Speak, Memory; reading it would bring her close to me. I found it reassuring to read that Nabokov had experienced mild hallucinations at a young age. Before long, I was asleep, dreaming of the upper stories and the turret. I found a winding stairway in the turret, which I began to climb. There was a room at the top that I wanted to see. But the steps were unending, and with terror I realized someone hovered right behind me. I woke with a start.

As I settled back down, I heard a noise outside, a clumpy, jangly noise. It sounded as if someone wearing heavy boots clambered up the wooden steps. The boots sounded loose, untied, unbuckled. Yes, that was the jangle, the buckles. The sound stopped before reaching the porch.

Once again, I sat up and pressed myself against the wall. Then I heard a man’s thin voice coming through a crack in the window. It sounded hoarse and dry. It could have been the wind. Then I closed my eyes and felt cold breath on my ear. The breath was foul, like stale pipe tobacco, that is, if the pipe had spent the last seventy years in a grave. The voice, now next to my ear, spoke in an angry whisper:

<  10  >

 

I’ve just been cleaning through my pockets and came across a little card upon which were prayers to be said at the battlefront printed by St. Anthony’s Guild. Also along with it a letter, requesting I memorize same. I had to smile when reading – “When dread & Terror fill my heart/ Help me to act the soldier’s part.” Honestly these barbarians don’t fill me with dread and terror. As far as I’m concerned the more of these fiends I can annihilate before they get me the better. If you could see the filthy snapshots and drawings most of these vermin carry in their pockets. If you’d seen the lowest of tricks used on our men.

 

I remembered those words as if I had read them somewhere. Yes, they were from a passage in Jerome’s letters sent home from the war. The voice stopped, and I trembled with fear. I imagined that he wore his boots untied and unbuckled because his swollen feet had been frostbitten and gangrenous. He had fought in France during the winter months. Saw many of his men die and their corpses freeze before his eyes. Again the killer headache, again the tightening of the dreads. I heard what I knew now to be combat boots descending the stairs onto the beach. He must have passed by his red maple in its glorious fall colors. My great-uncle Jerome, before going off to war — or so the family story goes — had vowed his virginity to God.

*

Some days passed, I was losing count, the wind howled and the old house creaked and groaned and popped. I thought of going into the village to the barber’s, but I didn’t want to risk it. I looked like a serial killer. I figured at first glance they would Baker Act me — or was that just what they did with crazies in Florida? I would have to cut my hair, but I feared making it look worse. I wanted to explore the attic and the turret, but I was too chickenshit. Safer to stay in my hidey-hole these days. Terrible odors still assailed me: the old lady stink, the reek of piss, and the tobacco from the grave. And along with the wretched smells, I continued to hallucinate sounds of people walking about and images of a tiny shawled figure.

I worked on my new comedy act. I still had the kneeler in mind as a prop. I knelt on it. I wanted to make fun of religion, but so many others had already done that. Some of the greats: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, even Louis C.K. Didn’t see what I could add. Like the bit about priests fucking little boys in the ass. That was apparently accepted by the Church, but masturbation was a sin. Well, I guess if you had a ready supply of little boy ass, you wouldn’t be tempted by the devil to jerk off. Was that funny? I suspected that religious comedy had already been done — only better. I opened the lid of the kneeler and put my hand in, the rope and chains pricked my skin. I pulled out the knotted rope. After taking off my shirt, I lashed my back swinging the rope over my shoulder. The rope scored and burned my back and the palm with which I grasped it. I took the larger chain out, and using the leather straps on either end, I tied it around my waist. The tighter I pulled, the more I pricked my flesh. The shorter chain I tied around my right biceps. With the spikes breaking my skin, I gave my back a few more lashes. My curiosity satisfied and feeling a rush of endorphins, I put the rope and chains back into the kneeler.

<  11  >

     *

To my surprise, that night I had a happy dream. I go into this club, and I put the kneeler on the stage. I kneel on it and say, “I just spent two months in an old house with the ghosts of dead relatives, and I’ve been praying like shit ever since.”

Gasps and guffaws. And shouts of “Welcome back, Gus.”

*

My parents had suggested that I stay for a couple of months, be back home for the holidays. Before it got really cold. I figured I’d head back in time for Thanksgiving. That meant I’d be spending Halloween, my favorite holiday, here.

*

One afternoon, I was so cold that I figured it had to be warmer out in the sun. I hobbled out on stiff legs to the tool shed for a pair of pruning shears. Earlier, I had seen a pair with bright red handles that should be easy to find. I had oiled them and sharpened them up a bit. Yes, they were propped against the rusty blades of the push mower just where I had left them. There was also a pair of gardening gloves, stiffened with age, which I grabbed to keep my hands warm.

Out front the hedges rose above my head. The reaching warmed me up. The rigidity was leaving my body, and it felt good to stretch my limbs. I wasn’t at it for long when a taxicab pulled up. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Annie paying the driver.

“Hi, Gus,” she said as casually as if we’d been hanging together the day before.

“Annie, is that you?”

“You didn’t think I’d let you spend Halloween all by yourself.”

“But how did you get here?”

“By train. Amtrak, then Long Island Railroad. Took a taxi from the station.”

“I don’t know what to say. The place is a mess.”

“That’s how it should be — for Halloween. But aren’t you rushing it? What’s with the hair?”

“Let me help you,” I said, reaching for her backpack.

“But seriously, man, you look different, like an aging celebrity who had work done.”

“You never saw me with dreads and a beard. I’m the same ol’ Gloomy Gus,” I said, faking a crazed look. “Come see the best spook house ever.”

“Yikes, it is spooky, and that’s strange,” said Annie when her eyes fell on the prayer kneeler. “Why do you have an antique French prie-dieu?”

“This thing?” I asked. “What did you call it?”

“A prie-dieu, it means Pray God. Saw one on Antiques Roadshow.”

“It’s the prop for my new routine.”

“I can’t wait to see that.”

<  12  >

     *

Before we knew it, it was Halloween. I had built a roaring fire in the fireplace with the driftwood I had gathered. We were sure there wouldn’t be any trick or treaters stopping by, so we planned our own party. I had helped Annie set up a hidey-hole next to mine, and we discussed our plans.

“I think it would be great fun to tell ghost stories,” I said.

“I don’t have any,” Annie replied.

“That’s okay. I’ve got enough for the both of us.” Then I continued, “After we’re good and scared, we can check out the turret.”

“Sounds like fun,” she agreed. “And after I show you what I have here, you’ll see that it will definitely be fun.” At that, she took from her backpack a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a bag of weed.

“I’ve been sober for weeks,” I said. “This is going to be the best, fucked-up Halloween ever.”

I hied myself into the kitchen and grabbed a couple of coffee mugs while Annie rolled a fat doobie.

We sat cross-legged on the floor, facing each other. I poured the drinks and Annie lit up. After sipping and smoking, I felt fine. Maybe a wee bit paranoid. I had found some candles in a drawer in the kitchen, and their flickering light added the perfect touch to our scary night. I told Annie of my recent ghostly experiences, about the old lady wrapped in a shawl saying her rosary on the kneeler. The sweet, tender music of the violin, and of course the funky smell of my great-aunt’s bedroom. I mentioned how her rosary had ended up tangled in my dreads.

Annie appeared to be interested in my ghostly tales, but, of course, she was stoned. I then told her about the sounds I had heard coming from outside. The heavy body struggling along the porch with the aid of two canes that I had at first mistaken for a shopping cart, and then the combat boots with jangling buckles. I mentioned how the porch stank of piss when I snuck out to investigate. I told her about the voice that spoke to me in the darkness, how his angry words smelt of rotting flesh and stale tobacco.

Annie moved closer to me. I could tell I scared her, maybe she feared I’d gone mad. But then she laughed and said, “My you’ve had a most sensuous time in Babylon — so many extraordinary sights, sounds, and smells.” She was an atheist. She didn’t believe in ghosts either.

“Come on,” I said. “Time to hit the turret.”

With flashlight in hand, I led her up the first flight of stairs. We walked along the hallway on the second floor until I found the attic door. She walked behind me with her hands gripping the waistband of my jeans, her fingers curling in the belt loops. I started to think there might be real fear behind her laughter. We climbed the stairway to the third floor. I knew I was scared.

“Now, the turret must be to the right,” I said. “It’s probably behind one of these doors.”

I eventually found the door. Behind it wound an old staircase.

“Just a little bit further,” I said to reassure Annie — and myself.

We climbed with the jerky beam of the flashlight showing the way and making shadows on the walls. When we reached the top, the light of a hunter’s moon streamed through the windows into a circular room. It was one of those big red moons. With its sanguine light and my flashlight, we could see that the room was in disrepair. Cobwebs hung from the windows. Chunks of plaster had fallen from the ceiling. Broken glass from the windowpanes lay on the floor. In its day, it must have been spectacular with its panoramic view. But its day was done. Everyone who had ever lived here was dead. The specter of decay had eaten into my soul, but I knew I didn’t have a soul. Why did I even think that?

“Over there,” Annie pointed. “What’s that?”

At first it looked like just another of the many piles of rubbish that lay about the house. As I aimed my flashlight at the top of an old chest with missing drawers, I could discern several items tossed on the chest: a warped violin, a pair of combat boots, and two wooden canes.

Annie screamed in terror. And grabbed me.

Then she laughed. “I get it. You put those there, planning to include them in your ghost stories. Damn good trick, my Halloween buddy.”

“But this is the first time I’ve been up here,” I replied, my throat tightening in fear.

“Yeah, right.”

<  13  >

     *

We hurried back down to our hidey-holes, took another hit off the bottle, decided we’d had enough weed, and passed out.

*

It wasn’t long before I woke up. Glad that Annie believed I’d just played a Halloween trick on her, but I knew differently. I had a terrible night, dreaming frightening dreams and waking to insomnia, a pattern repeated over and over again. At one point, awake or asleep, I didn’t know, I was dragged to the heavy kitchen table and placed on it face down. I choked and retched as I breathed in the foulest odors. People around me prayed in Latin, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

As I struggled to get up, they pressed my body hard onto the table. I grabbed the sides of the table with my hands, finding the impressions of another’s fingernails, the ridges I had discovered shortly after arriving here. One of the people held my head down while another tugged at my shorts. This can’t be happening. A man’s heavy body was being supported as it struggled to crawl on top of me. He grunted as he shifted his massive arms and torso on my back. He thrust his hands, powerful hands, into the tangles of my hair, twisting and pulling hard, as if planning to use my hair to hang onto for his brutal ride. His legs flopped helplessly about without any weight or strength. They felt shriveled, but the weight of his upper half was bone crushing. I heard the rattle of canes falling to the floor. And I knew then that my long-dead great-grandfather, the patriarch of the Kelly family, had mounted me.

The others prayed, “Gloria Patti, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.” I recognized Joan’s loud, brassy voice, and I heard Frank, with his nervous giggle, egging on the ghost of the man who moved methodically on my back. An old woman’s voice whispered, “My father, thy will be done,” and a young man cried, “Dread and terror fill my heart, Oh Father. Help me to act my part.” Although I tried to hold my breath, the sickening old lady odor and the putrid reek of gangrenous feet, along with the burning smell of urine — all invaded my nostrils.

Then came a piercing pain as if my lower body were being torn apart. I recalled a scene from The Dunwich Horror, only instead of Sandra Dee on her back on an altar stone, it was me on my stomach on a kitchen table. How could the man who got the bends rescuing a fellow worker in the underwater tunnel do this to me? How could the brave soldier with a Silver Star do this to me? And how could the woman who spent her life in prayer do this to me? I didn’t understand.

The monster on my back hissed in my ear, “I’ll make an altar boy out of you yet.”