A Penultimate Moment as Prologue
The old man was crying. The wind tossed his wispy hair and fanned the tears running down his tortured face. He twisted his hat in trembling, arthritic fingers and begged the young woman to forgive him.
The where was the village of Whitby, on the Yorkshire coastline of the North Sea. It was quite like any other English village. One horse-cart streets separating red-roofed houses, jammed together and atop one another like hurriedly stacked boxes, protected by cliffs rising so steeply to the east and west one could stand upon either and look across without seeing the town. The river Esk wound a sharp S approaching the southern viaduct, straightened north through the village, then broadened to the harbor and sea. Oddly, because of Whitby's position in this valley, though the sea lay to the east, the villagers could only see her by looking north. On the eastern side of the river, atop the great steps rising in a slow curve from the pier drawbridge, overlooking the harbor and out to sea, there stood the ruins of Whitby's ancient Abbey. On the same field, nearer the harbor, stood the parish church. Surrounding the church and stretching across the field to the cliff's edge above the harbor, was the massive village cemetery. Of all the places visited in the telling of this tale, it is most appropriate the story begin there, in the company of the ancient dead.
The when was simpler; a gray Friday evening on the 6th of August, 1897.
The who was the old man (locals agreed, he was nearly a hundred) tearfully making his case. He was a Scotsman by birth, a whaler by trade, retired from the sea. With him was the young woman to whom he poured out his rapidly beating heart, the charming Mina Murray.
Mina was in her usual place, the church cemetery, when the old man came upon her. Nothing strange there, the hilltop graveyard was virtually the village park. Serene walking paths ran all through the grave rows with stone benches interspersed. Everyone in Whitby, residents and tourists, eventually wound up among the tombstones, invigorated by the breeze, to investigate the histories of the dead, to sneak off to the dilapidated Abbey (said to be haunted, as ruined churches must be, by a mysterious lady in white), or to while away the day from that beautiful vantage point, commanding a view of the village, the harbor and out past the Kettleness headland to the sea.
Since her arrival in Whitby two weeks prior, it was routine for Mina and Lucy Westenra, the friend with whom she was staying, to escape their rooms at the Crescent and stroll these quiet paths. And, when Mina walked alone, to rest upon a bench she'd chosen as her favorite near the cliff's edge. There, to quietly consider her troubles.
Lucy, always of an excitable temperament had, since Mina's arrival returned to a frightening old habit of walking in her sleep, but with a determination Mina had never witnessed before. The last few days Lucy's night walking had all but reached a fever pitch. Mina was desperately worried. Add to that, her overwhelming fears for her fiancé… Jonathan Harker was far away in Transylvania completing an important business transaction. His work allowed only infrequent letters and his last, two weeks since, had been so disappointing, a single line from Castle Dracula saying he was starting for home. Nothing more, and no news since. It was unlike Jonathan. Mina missed him terribly and longed for his return. So the walks, and the contemplation.
Not that there was always solitude.
It was there at her bench visitors paused, sometimes to pass a pleasant moment, sometimes to pass the day, the coastal guard and his technicians installing their new search light, the locals, the touring visitors and, of course, the seamen.
There were in fact three seamen; the old whaler mentioned and his crusty sea cronies. (These two were absent just then, while the Scotsman was crying, but they were usually at his elbows.) The seat she'd chosen as her favorite was, Mina discovered, their liars' bench. Rather than chase her away the old men took her in, delighted for fresh ears upon which their stories were again new, and ever since had daily regaled her with tales of the sea. Mina called the old whaler `Sir Oracle' because the other two fawned over him, laughed at his jokes, agreed with his obvious lies, and egged-on his endless tales. Often they did nothing but sit in the cemetery all day and talk. Many days she did nothing but sit and listen.
As much as the old man gabbed rarely did he talk of personal matters; until that day. With his compatriots absent, perhaps because they were absent, Sir Oracle went on, like water through a burst dam, with his heartrending story.
In his hundred years, he'd seen a wife and three sons to their graves. One son remained, a sailor too, in his late sixties and still at sea. Sir Oracle knew neither the port nor the part of the world his `babe' presently occupied, but clearly he wanted him home again. In the meantime, he made his home in Whitby with his widowed granddaughter (daughter of the son at sea). She was an only child, her mother having died in childbirth, and he and his son traded the role of `father' whenever the other went to sea. Both returned to sailing when she took a husband. Both resumed the role of `father' when her husband met his end. They'd cared for each other all their lives. His story, one of great love, was sadly punctuated with great loss and the ravages of death.
Now the old man was crying, regretting cynical comments made over the past few days. He'd ranted about the tombstones, a startling speech as Mina remembered. He'd called them `lies carved in stone' and the families `liars'. He'd offered examples, graves marked, `Here lies so and so – lost at sea in such and such'. Then leveled his charge, “If they were lost at sea, how d' they lie here?” His tirade became a melancholy soliloquy on the sadness of life – and death.
Now the poor thing was apologizing with all his heart. But the more he struggled for her forgiveness, unnecessary in the first place, the more dire became his talk of looming eternity. He interrupted himself, trying to explain these portents of doom, until the tears cascaded down his pale cheeks. Mina was so desperately sad for the confused old man she felt she too would cry.
Then he fell silent, took a breath to the toes of his old leather boots, and collected himself. He smiled, with clouded eyes, and said, “But I'm content.” He wiped his tears with his hat. “My life is here. Solid ground `neath me tired old feet an' a roof o'er me head. I've my granddaughter to care for me, an' I for her. An' her dad comin' ageeanwards home. Dear Gog, I hope he's comin' home soon.” Then Sir Oracle, staring out to sea, whispered, “I'd like to see him ageean - 'efore I die.”
“I'm content,” he said. But there was resignation in his voice. “For it's comin' to me, m' deary, an' comin' quick. It may be comin' while we be lookin' an' wonderin'. Maybe it's in that wind out o'er the sea that's bringin' with it loss an' wreck, an' sore distress, an' sad hearts.”
“Look!” he cried. “Look!” He gestured at the roiling sky. “There's somethin' in that wind an' in the hoast beyont that sounds, an' looks, an' tastes, an' smells like death. It's in the air. I feel it comin'.” His hair danced in the wind. He raised his hands. “Lord, make me answer cheerful, when my call comes!” He mouthed a prayer and Mina could only feel for him. He gently shook her hand with his gnarled claw, blessed her, and said, “G'bye.” Then he turned and, as he started across the cemetery, angling for the long stairs, whispered, “So many steps… so many steps… 'efore I'm home.”
Mina watched him go tears running down her cheeks too. She was the essence of vibrant youth, with a front row seat to the debilitating effects of time. As Sir Oracle reached the stairs, she couldn't help but wonder what it must feel like to be so old – so near to death.
Not far from Mina's bench, the eastern cliff curved away. Wind, weather, and time had undercut that portion of the rise. The underside had fallen away and with it several graves had fallen to the harbor below. Outside the harbor, on this side, a great reef ran for half a mile straight out from behind the lighthouse. A lone buoy bobbed there and, in heavy seas, the sound of her bell drifted like the cry of mourners on the wind. The old man had spoken of a local legend that when a ship was lost at sea that mournful bell was heard.
A pall settled over Mina, the effects of Sir Oracle's tearful pleas, the sadness of the bell and, as she shook off her reverie, the appearance of what looked a frightening storm approaching over the sea. The clouds, gray all day, were darkening over Kettleness and the sea was growing black.
Mina saw the crippled old whaler, hobbling down the long stairs (she'd counted them once, 199 steps in all). He was passed by the young coastal guard racing, in the opposite direction, three steps at a time from the harbor below. She hurried to dry her cheeks (her handkerchief a gift from Jonathan) before the guard arrived. He usually paused to greet her before going about his business. It was her duty to save the gentleman any embarrassment.
The coast guard reached the top of the stairs and waved as he caught his breath. But, instead of approaching, he turned to the sea. He was carrying a spyglass which he lifted to study the horizon.
“I can't make her out.”
He hurried to Mina's side, nodded a greeting and returned to the glass. Mina followed his gaze to the sea beyond the harbor. The approaching storm and an odd mist that had suddenly arisen made visibility difficult but, straining, she saw it now too. A long way off, a sailing ship bobbing on the sea.
“I can't make her out,” the guard repeated. He turned the lens following the ship, scanning her billowing sails, tracing her masts, patiently waiting for one of her flags to unfurl in the winds gusting at sea. “She's a Russian!” he finally called out. “She's a Russian by the look of her.”
He saw it now, the solid white, blue and red bars of the Russian flag whipping atop her main mast, and a yellow banner, their Imperial flag, flying on the mizzen. A small house flag, denoting the owners, flew beneath but its details were beyond the reach of his glass. Still there was no doubt, the ship was Russian. But what in God's name was she doing?
“But she's knocking about in the queerest way,” the guard said. He'd never seen the like and reported her movements to calm his own nerves. “She doesn't know her mind a bit. She seems to see the storm coming, but can't decide whether to run up north in the open, or to put in here. Look there again! She is steered mighty strangely.” He shook his head inviting Mina to share his alarm. “She doesn't mind the hand on the wheel and changes about with every puff of wind.” He lowered the spyglass and solemnly declared, “We'll hear more of her before this time tomorrow.”
Thirty-eight nights earlier, Tuesday, 29 June, 1897, in Transylvania, in eastern Austria-Hungary where… a flying shadow beat the air with its leathery wings.
Below in the country dark, the trees, the black ribbons of river, the rolling fields… turned into sparse, barren foothills, then rose to rugged peaks frowning down upon the beaten road heading northeast from Bistritz, Austria-Hungary to Bukovina, Romania. The flying shadow flitted, rolled, darted down then up again, stroking the air as it soared over the narrow, rocky Borgo Pass, the juncture in that dusty road offering men their last opportunity to escape the dreaded unknown and return unharmed, sane, to their world of daylight.
Its wings worked rhythmically, unceasingly. The flying shadow issued a shrill scream and climbed above the craggy slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, higher still beneath the fading moonlight to the broken battlements of an ancient castle. Its only approach from the ground was a disused coach trail on the north leading to a narrow courtyard. From the other sides the castle was impregnable. Massive windows in its walls, out of reach of sling, bow or cannon, looked out from the rock upon which it was erected, sloping sharply away to the east, and falling to a precipice to the south and west. The shadow dove, soared low over the dilapidated, seemingly deserted stronghold, and disappeared between her towers. An instant later, a tall man emerged from the darkness - in its place - and strode the castle rooftop.
He was clad in flowing black from head to foot. His thick hair and tremendous mustache were both a dark iron-gray. His full cheeks, as the moonlight hit him, were ruby-red beneath pale white skin. His lips were intensely red and marred with maroon splotches of drying blood. Even his eyes, like burning coals, seemed buried deep in swollen flesh. The tall man, like a filthy leech, was gorged with blood. This thing was Count Dracula.
He stepped noiselessly to the edge of the roof and leaned over the parapet. With keen eyes and ears he saw and heard a pack of wolves, monstrous even from that height, padding and panting about the dark courtyard. Earlier he'd found it necessary to summon them to put a young Englishman in his place and to help that guest understand exactly who commanded there. He smiled at the memory and his sharp, oddly protruding teeth dented the surface of his bloody lower lip.
The wolves, his children, had served their purpose. Now, with a courtly gesture, Dracula released them. He closed his eyes and relished their melodic howls, clamorous at first then fading, as one by one they abandoned the courtyard and mountainside, returning to the dense wooded foothills. A remarkable stillness overtook the land.
Dracula stared out over his Transylvania, his empire, his lifeblood for the last four hundred and fifty years. To the west, where the valley was backed by the peaks of jagged mountains, the cracks in their rock faces studded with ash and hawthorn. To the south, where the expanse of distant hills, bathed in moonlight, melted into the velvety blackness of the peasants' fields. Endlessly beautiful but devoid of life. The land, despite the fresh blood on his lips, was drying up.
His decision was the only one possible. He would leave his homeland, travel to distant shores, insert himself into a modern world ignorant of superstition and its protections; a world begging to be fed upon. He knew also he'd chosen his new home wisely. The British Empire controlled one-quarter of the world's population; one-quarter of its land. If Transylvania could no longer sustain him, where but England did a conqueror belong?
His journey had been long-planned. Through the machinations of the greedy and the stupid an estate awaited him in London, a receiver awaited in Whitby, and the ship that would carry him in Varna. The well-paid gypsies, the Szgany, were encamped below. In the morning would come the Slovaks to aid them. In darkness, on the voyage ahead, he would sleep… and bring to full flower his great experiment.
Among his growing powers was the ability to communicate with lesser beings; animals, yes, and those especially compliant humans. For centuries he'd wondered at their sensitivity to his thoughts and tested the distances at which subjects could be influenced. It was necessary, for he would require assistance in his new home.
To that end…
He'd been weeding through the voices of humanity that floated on the wind, deciphering, selecting the speakers and their thoughts over ever-increasing distances. Once he'd learned the trick, the miles melted like wax and the words rang like bells. Among them, he found that one particular voice. He heard his subject, read his thoughts and, finally, learned to actually experience his subject's surroundings. When he could hear and feel in the man's place, the Count turned the table. He returned his psyche on the same mental stream and gave the subject his thoughts, his words. This experiment had one goal; absolute obedience. Body and soul, this man would serve Dracula.
The one selected for greatness, a nobody called Renfield, had just over a month since been hospitalized for a mental breakdown. He was morbidly excitable, suffered periods of melancholy and, with his great physical strength, was quickly judged a danger to himself and others. None of that mattered to Dracula. Renfield had a pliable consciousness. It was no coincidence the sanitarium was just outside of London.
So began the instruction. He stressed secrecy, loyalty, obedience. He had even suggested a hobby. With the natural streak of cruelty he'd found in the subject, Dracula's suggestion was taken up eagerly. It became a need and, soon after, an obsession. The hobby? Simply that Renfield should catch and collect flies.
Renfield was instantly rebranded a lunatic. His hobby, in two short weeks, drove his attending psychiatrist, a smarmy know-it-all called Seward, to demand he cease and desist. On Dracula's order, Renfield begged for three days more to purge himself of his horrid collection. And, of course, the bleeding heart doctor relented.
Seward had played into Dracula's hands. The flies were merely a means to an end and had, by then, served their purpose. To continue the game, the Count had only to send Renfield another suggestion. Within a few days, the flies had greatly diminished. In their stead, hidden in a box from Seward's prying eyes, the lunatic had collected several fat, juicy spiders.
Atop his castle, Dracula stretched his white hands to the stars (a gesture that seemed to fix him into stone) and, across distant land and water, called to his servant. From far away, he heard Renfield's whispered reply, “Yes, master. I await you!”
The moon was all-but gone and the first streaks of dawn broke over the mountains. Dracula climbed onto the south parapet and slipped head-first over the side. His sharp nails gripped the roughly cut stones, the toes of his boots dug into the crevices where time and the elements had crumbled the mortar or washed it away. He took in the heady vista of the shadowed countryside and crawled lizard-like down the outside of the castle.
He paused in his descent by a tall, deep, weatherworn window, the bedroom of Dracula's guest, and peered in at the Englishman. He slept fitfully, across the heavy bed, still wearing his disheveled clothes. The Count's eyes gleamed and he laughed silently. He thought of his three wives in flowing white, somewhere within, even now making their way to their resting places. His women and his guest alone together. He congratulated himself on the fate he intended for Herr Jonathan Harker. He crawled on to another window, a storey below and to the left, raised the sash and disappeared inside.
The web-filled room was scantily furnished, an ornate bed, a table, a high-backed arm chair, all covered in thick dust. In one corner a great pile of gold rose from the floor like a mountain in a child's sandbox; chains and ornaments (some jewel encrusted, many tarnished) and, mounded amongst them, gold and silver coins from countries throughout Europe and the East; Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Austria, Italy and Britain, all ancient and covered with dust – for long had it lain there unmolested.
He opened a heavy door in the opposite corner, strode through a passage to a circular stairway, and descended. The stairs were steep and treacherous but he glided down without a sound. At the bottom was a tunnel heavy with the sick odor of old earth newly turned. At its end, he opened a heavy door and entered a ruined chapel. The roof was broken, vast walls fallen away, and its graveyard long since been abandoned and forgotten. Until now.
These grounds had, recently, been dug over; the earth placed in great boxes piled throughout the chapel by the Szgany, on his orders. Between these boxes, in two places, steps led down to in-ground vaults. He passed the stairs to the first two, containing fragments of old coffins and piles of dust, and descended the second staircase to another set of vaults. At the base he entered the crypt on his left. He examined the remaining boxes, stacked within, the last of a total fifty being readied for removal by the Slovaks in daylight.
Count Dracula sighed in satisfaction.
His own box lay as he'd left it, close against the wall, atop newly turned soil, open and partially filled with earth. Beside the box leaned its cover, pierced sporadically with tiny holes, nails in place at its corners ready to be hammered home.
Dracula climbed into the box. Bloated, he belched and an eructation of blood escaped his lips and ran in a crimson rivulet down his chin. He drew his cloak about him like a shroud and lay back atop the cool soil. He drew the lid up and over his box and, exhausted with his repletion, closed out the sliver of light stealing into the vault from the stairway door.
Tomorrow, he and his boxes would be taken from his castle home; from the kingdom where he lived, ruled, and died. He would be taken from his haunted Carpathian Mountains where, following his death, he had been – unborn – to live again. He would leave the Transylvania he loved but that could no longer support his kind. Tomorrow, Count Dracula's new life would begin.