In the year 1815 all the great heads of Europe were gathered in Vienna: the continent’s brightest minds and most brilliant diplomats. Our tale begins towards the conclusion of this historic Congress.
The royalist emigres were preparing to return to their chateaus, and the Russian warriors to return to their forsaken homes. A few disgruntled Poles hoped to shelter their desire for freedom under the dubious independence granted to Krakow by Prince Metternich, Prince Hardenberg and Count Nesselrode.
It was like the waning hours of a lively ball. The once vibrant crowds that filled the streets and establishments of the city had dwindled to a small number of people still seeking diversion, still fascinated by the charms of the Austrian ladies, reluctant to pack up and go their separate ways.
This pleasant company, of which I was part, would meet twice a week in the castle of the Dowager Princess of Schwarzenberg, a few miles from the city, beyond a small village named Hitzing. Our hostess’ aristocratic manner, her gracious kindness, and the nobility of her spirit and of her intellect, made our soujourns to her castle quite agreeable indeed.
Our mornings were spent on pleasant rambles; in the afternoon we dined together in the castle or within its environs. In the evenings, sitting by a good fire, we amused ourselves in conversation and story-telling. Discussion of politics was strictly forbidden everyone had had enough. The stories we told were borrowed from the legends of our respective countries, or from our own memories.
One evening everyone had been telling ghost stories, and our minds were in a restless, uneasy state that was increased by the evening’s darkness and silence. The Marquis d’Urfé, an old emigre whom we all loved for his youthful gaiety, and for the colorful stories he told of his adventures and various changes of fortune, took advantage of a moment of silence and spoke:
“Your stories, gentlemen,” he said, “are no doubt amazing, but in my opinion they lack an essential quality I mean that of authenticity. I don’t think that any of you have seen with his own eyes the wonderful things that you narrate, nor can you atttest to their truth with your word as gentlemen.”
This we were obliged to admit, and the old man continued, straightening his cravat:
“As for me, gentlemen, I have had but a single adventure of this kind; but it is so strange, so horrible, and yes true, that it will strike terror in even the most incredulous among you. I was unfortunately both witness and actor, and I though I normally don’t like to remember it, I would be happy to tell you the story, if it pleases the ladies to allow me.”
The approval was unanimous. A few of us glanced nervously around at the moonlit tiles of the parquet floor, and our circle drew closer to listen to the Marquis’ tale. M. d’Urfé took a pinch of snuff, sniffed and slowly began with these words:
First of all, mesdames, I beg your pardon if I mention the affairs of my heart more often in my story than a man my age should, but the romance is an essential part of the narrative. Besides, old age has its moments of forgetfulness and it’s your fault, mesdames, that you are all so beautiful that I forget that I’m no longer a young man. So let me begin.
In 1759, I was madly in love with the beautiful Duchess de Gramont. This passion, which seemed so deep and enduring at the time, gave me no rest day or night, and the way that the Duchess played the coquette as many beautiful women do only added to my torment. Finally, in a moment of despair, I sought out and obtained a diplomatic mission to the Gospodar (Lord) of Moldavia, who was in negotiations with Versailles over business that it would bore you to hear about. On the eve of my departure, I presented myself to the Duchess. She received me less teasingly than usual, and said to me, with some emotion:
‘D’Urfé, you are committing a great folly. But I know you and I know you’ll never change your mind. So I ask you only one thing: please accept this small cross as a token of my friendship, and carry it with you until you return. It’s a family relic that we value highly.’
With a gallantry that was perhaps misplaced at such a moment, I kissed not the relic, but the charming hand that she gave me, and I passed the cross around my neck, and have worn it ever since.
I won’t bore you, mesdames, with the details of my trip, or with my observations of the Hungarians and Serbs, those poor but brave and honest people. Even enslaved by the Turks, they never forgot their dignity or their former independence. Suffice it to say that having learned a little Polish during a visit I made to Warsaw, I was also able to acquire a bit of Serbian, as these two languages (and Russian and Bohemian as well) are, as you probably know, so many branches of a single language called Slavonic.
And so I knew enough of the language to make myself understood, when one day I arrived in a village whose name will not interest you much. I arrived on a Sunday, a day which the Serbian people generally devote to amusements like dancing, sharpshooting, wrestling, and so on. So you can imagine my surprise when I reached the house where I planned to stay, and found the inhabitants in an extremely anxious state. Guessing that the situation was due to some recent misfortune, I started to withdraw from the house when a man of about thirty, a tall and imposing figure, approached me and took me by the hand.
“Enter, stranger, please, come in,” he said. “Don’t be alarmed at our sorrow; you’ll understand when you know the cause.”
He then told me that, on rising one morning several days before, his elderly father, Gorcha, a restless and stubborn man, had taken from the wall a long Turkish musket.
‘Children,’ he said to his two sons, one named Dorde, the other Petar, ‘I’m going up to the mountains to join the brave men who are chasing this dog Alibek (this was a Turkish robber who had been ravaging the countryside for some time). Wait for me for ten days, and if I don’t return by the tenth, have a Mass said for my soul, because I’ll be dead.’
Then old Gorcha added, in a deadly serious tone, ‘But if God forbid I come back after ten days, for your own sakes do not let me in. If this happens, I command you to forget that I was your father, no matter what I say or do, and to impale my heart with an aspen stake, because I will be a cursed Vourdalak returning to suck your blood.’
I should explain to you, mesdames, that vourdalaks, as the Slavic peoples call vampires, are believed in those countries to be dead bodies that come out of their graves to suck the blood of the living. Their habits are similar to those of all vampires, from any country, but they have one characteristic that makes them even more dreadful. The vourdalaks, mesdames, prefer to suck the blood of their closest relatives and dearest friends who, once dead, become vampires in turn. They claim that in Bosnia and Hungary entire villages have become vourdalaks. Father Augustin Calmet, in his curious book on ghosts and apparitions, cites many frightening examples. Several times, the Emperors of Germany have appointed commissions to investigate outbreaks of vampirism. The commissioners tell of exhuming bodies engorged with blood, which they stake in the heart and then burn in the village squares. The magistrates who were present at these executions attest with oaths and signed statements that they heard the dead howl at the moment that the stake was plunged into their hearts.
Knowing this, it will be easy to understand, mesdames, the effect that old Gorcha’s words had on his sons. They both threw themselves at his feet and begged him to let them go in his place. In reply, he turned his back and left, humming the refrain of an old war song. The day I arrived in the village was precisely the end of the ten days, which of course explained his family’s concern.
They were a good and honest family. Dorde, the eldest son of the two, seemed a serious and resolute man. He was married with two children. His brother Petar, a handsome young man of eighteen years, had a face full of gentleness and courage, and was evidently the favorite of their younger sister, Sdenka, a classic Slavic beauty. I was struck not only by Sdenka’s undeniable loveliness, but also by a certain resemblance she had to the Duchess de Gramont. They both had a delicate line on their foreheads, a characteristic that I’ve only ever noticed on these two women. This feature may not seem very appealing at first, but the more you noticed it, the more irresistible it became.
Perhaps it was because I was so young then, but this resemblance, combined with Sdenka’s charming and naive air, was truly irresistible. I had only known Sdenka for two minutes, but already I felt a sympathy for her that threatened to become a more tender emotion if I lingered too long in the village.
We were all gathered in front of the house, around a table topped with cheese and bowls of milk. Sdenka spun, her sister-in-law was preparing supper, the children were playing in the sand. Petar whistled nonchalantly as he cleaned his yatagan, or Turkish longknife. Dorde sat silently with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. His eyes devoured the highway.
I felt overcome by the general melancholy, and could only watch sadly as the evening clouds framed the golden background of the sky and the silhouette of a monastery half hidden by the black pine forest.
This monastery, as I learned later, had once been famous for a miraculous image of the Virgin, which according to legend, was brought by angels and placed on an oak . But when the Turks invaded the country at the beginning of the last century, they slaughtered the monks and ransacked the monastery. All that was left were the walls, and a chapel served by a mysterious hermit. He gave tours of the ruins to the curious, and sheltered pilgrims who, as they traveled on foot from one holy site to another, liked to stop at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Oak. As I said, I learned this all much later; that night I had other things on my mind besides Serbian archeology. As often happens when you let your mind wander, I thought back to times past, to my childhood, to the beautiful France that I had left behind for this remote, wild country.
I thought of the Duchess de Gramont, and why not admit it? I also thought of other ladies, contemporaries of your grandmothers, whose images, without my knowledge, had crept into my heart, following the image of the lovely Duchess.
Soon I had forgotten my hosts and their worries.
Suddenly Dorde broke the silence.
‘Woman,’ he asked his wife, ‘what time did the old man leave?’
‘At eight o’clock,’ his wife answered. ‘I heard the monastery bell.’
‘Good,’ said Dorde, ‘it can’t be later than half past seven.’ And he fell silent, fixing his eyes again on the highway which disappeared into the forest.
I forgot to tell you, mesdames, that when the Serbs suspect someone of vampirism, they avoid calling him by name or referring to him directly, for fear it will summon him from the grave. So for some time, when speaking of his father, Dorde had only called him the old man.
A few moments of silence passed. Suddenly one of the children tugged on Sdenka’s apron.
‘Auntie, when is Grandpa coming home?’
A blow from Dorde was the answer to this untimely question.
The child began to cry, but his brother said, with an expression of surprise and fear:
‘Father, why can’t we ask about Grandpa?’
Another blow silenced the child. The two children began to bawl, and the rest of the family crossed themselves.
At this point, I heard the monastery clock begin slowly to strike eight. Hardly had the first chime sounded in our ears than we saw a human form emerge from the woods and advance towards us.
‘That’s him! God be praised!’ cried Sdenka, Petar, and their sister-in-law at once.
‘God keep us!’ Dorde said solemnly. ‘How do we know if the ten days have passed or not?’
Everyone looked at him fearfully. Still the figure advanced towards us. He was a tall old man with a silver mustache, and a pale, stern face, limping painfully along with a stick. As he approached, Dorde’s face became darker. When the newcomer was near us, he stopped and surveyed his family with eyes that seemed to look right through them, they were so dull and sunken in their sockets.
‘Well,’ he said in a hollow voice, ‘no one stands up to greet me? What is this silence? Don’t you see that I’m hurt?’
I then noticed that the old man’s left side was bloodied.
‘Help your father,’ I said to Dorde, ‘and you Sdenka, bring him some spirits, he’s about to faint!’
Father, Dorde said, as he approached Gorcha, ‘show me your injury, I will try to help you…’
He tried to open Gorcha’s coat, but the old man pushed Dorde away roughly, holding both hands over his side.
‘Clumsy oaf,’ he said, ‘you’re hurting me!’
‘You’ve been wounded near the heart!’ cried Dorde, his face pale. ‘Take off your coat, now, you must, I tell you!’
The old man stood up straight and stiff.
‘Watch yourself,’ he said in a low voice. ‘If you touch me, you’ll regret it!’
Petar got between Dorde and his father.
‘Let him be,’ he said. ‘Can’t you see he’s in pain?’
‘Don’t defy him,’ said Dorde’s wife.’You know he won’t tolerate that!’
At that moment we saw a cloud of dust: it was the herd returning home from their grazing. Perhaps the dog that accompanied them didn’t recognize her old master, or maybe she was agitated for other reasons, but as soon as she saw Gorcha she stopped, hair bristling, and began to growl as if she saw something uncanny.
‘What is wrong with that dog?’ said the old man, looking more and more annoyed. ‘What does all this mean? Have I become a stranger in my own home? Have ten days in the mountains changed me so much that my own dogs don’t recognize me?’
‘Do you hear?’ Dorde said to his wife.
‘He admits that the ten days have passed!’
‘But didn’t he return at the appointed time?’
‘Yes, well, I know what has to be done.’
The damned dog is still barking! Kill it! cried Gorcha. ‘Well, did you hear me?’
“Dorde did not move, but Petar stood up with tears in his eyes, and seizing the musket from his father, he shot the dog, who fell, rolling in the dust.
‘She was my favorite dog,’ Petar whispered. ‘I don’t know why Father wanted her killed!
‘Because that’s what she deserved.’ said Gorcha. ‘It’s getting cold, I want to go inside!’
While this was going on outside, Sdenka had prepared for the old man a drink made from pears, honey and raisins, but her father refused it in disgust. He showed the same aversion to a mutton rice dish that Dorde offered him, and went to sit by the hearth, muttering between his teeth unintelligibly.
A pine fire crackled in the fireplace, casting its flickering light on the figure of the old man, who was so pale that without the fire’s glow, he could have been taken for dead. Sdenka sat down beside him.
‘Father,’ she said, ‘you don’t want anything to eat, and you don’t want to rest. Perhaps you can tell us your adventures in the mountains?’
The girl knew that she could get on his good side by asking that, because the old man liked to talk about his battles and exploits. A kind of smile appeared on his colorless lips, though without reaching his eyes. He ran his hand through her beautiful blond hair.
‘Yes, my daughter, yes, Sdenka. I will tell you what happened to me in the mountains, but some other time, because I’m tired today. But I will tell you that Alibek is no more and that it was by my hand he perished. If anyone doubts this,’ continued the old man, looking around at his family, ‘here is the proof!’
He opened a bag that hung behind the two of them, and pulled out a head, pale and bloody though not quite as pale as his own. We turned away in horror, but Gorcha handed it to Petar.
‘Here,’ he said, ‘hang it over the door, so that everyone who passes will know that Alibek is dead and the roads are purged of robbers except of course, the Sultan’s Janissaries!’
Petar obeyed, picking up the head with revulsion.
‘Now I understand,’ he said. ‘The poor dog that I killed was upset because she smelled dead flesh!’
‘Yes, she smelled dead flesh.’ replied Dorde gloomily. He had slipped away without anyone noticing, and now he entered the house, holding in his hand an object that he placed in a corner and which looked to me like a stake.
Dorde, his wife said in a low voice, ‘you don’t intend, I hope…’
‘My brother,’ said his sister, ‘what are you planning to do? But no, you won’t do anything, will you?’
‘Let me be,’ said Dorde, ‘I know what I have to do, and I won’t do anything that isn’t necessary.’
When night fell, the family went to bed. The part of the house where they slept was separated from my room by a very thin wall. I confess that what I’d observed that evening had affected my imagination. With the lights out, the full moon shone into the room through a small low window close to my bed, casting a pale glow on the floor and walls much as it does now, mesdames, in this room where we sit. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I attributed my insomnia to the moonlight, and I looked for something to serve as a curtain over the window, but I found nothing. Then, hearing muffled voices behind the wall, I began to listen.
‘Go to bed, woman,’ said Dorde. And Petar and Sdenka, you too. Don’t worry about anything, I’ll keep watch.
‘No, Dorde,’ said his wife. ‘I should watch; you worked until late last night, and you must be tired. Besides, I have to watch our oldest. You know he’s been ill since yesterday!’
‘Be quiet and go to bed,’ said Dorde. ‘I’ll keep watch for both of us!’
‘But brother,’ said, Sdenka in her softest voice. ‘There’s no need to watch. Father is already asleep see how calm and peaceful he looks!’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, either of you,’ Dorde said in a tone that brooked no argument. ‘I told you to go to bed and let me watch!’
There fell a profound silence. Soon I felt my eyelids droop and sleep overcame me.
I thought I saw my door open slowly, and old Gorcha appear on the threshold. It was very dark in that corner of the room; I couldn’t really see him, but only suspected that the figure was his. His eyes followed the movement of my breath, and seemed to be trying to guess my thoughts. Cautiously, he crept towards me, on tiptoe. Suddenly he loomed above me, at the side of my bed. I felt an inexpressible fear, but some invisible force held me there, immobile. The old man leaned over me, his livid face so close to mine that I thought I could feel his cadaverous breath. With a supreme effort, I forced myself awake, bathed in sweat. There was no one in my room; but glancing out the window, I clearly beheld old Gorcha with his face against the pane, staring at me with dreadful eyes.
I had the strength to suppress a scream, and the presence of mind to lie calmly, as if I had not seen anything. However, it seemed the old man only wanted to make sure that I was asleep, because he made no attempt to get in, but walked away from the window after scrutinizing me. I heard footsteps in the next room. Dorde was asleep, snoring to shake the walls. The child coughed at that moment and I could make out Gorcha’s voice.
‘You’re not sleeping, little one?’ he said.
‘No, Grandpa,’ said the child, ‘and I want to talk to you!’
‘And what shall we talk about?’
‘I want you to tell me how you fought the Turks. I want to go fight the Turks, too!’
‘Yes, I thought so, child, and I brought you a little yatagan that I’ll give you tomorrow.’
‘Oh, Grandpa, give it to me now!’
‘But why, my little one, did you not talk to me when it was daylight?’
‘Because Father wouldn’t let me!’
‘He’s cautious, your father. So you want to have your little yatagan?’
‘Oh yes, I would! But not here, in case father wakes up.’
‘But where then?’
‘If we go outside, I promise to be careful and not make any noise!’
I seemed to hear Gorcha chuckle, as the child got out of bed. I did not believe in vampires, but my nightmare had frayed my nerves; wanting nothing to reproach myself for later, I got up and slammed my fist against the wall between myself and the room where the others were.
The noise should have been enough to wake the Seven Sleepers, but I heard no response. I rushed for the door, determined to save the child, but I discovered that it was closed and locked, and would not yield to my efforts to open it. As I tried in vain to escape, I could see the old man through my window, leaving with the boy in his arms.
‘Get up, get up!’ I shouted with all my strength, pounding the wall, which shook with the force of my blows. Only then did Dorde wake up.
‘Where’s the old man?’ he called.
‘Quickly!’ I shouted at him, ‘he just took your son!’
With a kick Dorde burst open the front door, which, like mine, had been barred from the outside, and ran in the direction of the woods. I finally managed to wake up Petar and Sdenka. We gathered in front of the house, and after a few minutes’ wait, we saw Dorde return, carrying his son. He’d found the boy unconscious by the side of the road. The child soon recovered, and seemed no worse for the experience. To our questions, he said that his grandfather had done him no harm; they had gone outside together to be more at ease. Once outside, he had lost consciousness, without remembering how. As for Gorcha, he was gone.
The rest of the night, as you might imagine, passed without sleep.
The next day I learned that the Danube, which cut the main road a mile from the village, had begun to freeze over, which always happens in that region in the late fall and early spring. This prevented travel for a few days, and I had to delay my planned departure. Yet, even if I could have left, curiosity, combined with a more powerful attraction, would have kept me there. The more I saw Sdenka, the more I loved her. I am not one of those romantics, mesdames, who believe in the sudden and irresistible passion that we read about in novels, but I think there are cases where love blossoms more quickly than usual. Sdenka so remarkably reminded me of the Duchess de Gramont, with that faint line traced on her forehead the same line that, in France, had made me suicidal with longing. I’d fled Paris to escape her, and yet here she was again, in picturesque costume and speaking a harmonious foreign tongue. It was this resemblance, together with the strangeness of my situation and the mysteries that surrounded me, that kindled in me a desire that, in other circumstances, would have been vague and fleeting.
In the course of the day I overheard Sdenka talking to her younger brother.
‘What do you think of all this?’ she asked him. ‘Do you also suspect our father?’
‘I dare not suspect him,’ replied Petar, ‘especially since the boy said that he wasn’t hurt. As for Father’s disappearance, you know that he never tells us of his comings and goings.’
‘I know,’ Sdenka said, ‘but something must be done, because you know Dorde…’
‘Yes, I know. It would be useless to try and talk him out of it, but if we hide the stake, he can’t get another one, because there’s not a single aspen on this side of the mountains!’
‘Yes, let’s hide the stake, but don’t tell the children because they might tell Dorde!’
‘We’ll keep it to ourselves,’ said Petar. And they parted.
Night came; still no news of old Gorcha. I lay awake, sprawled out on my bed, watching the moon shining brightly into my room. As sleep began to blur my thoughts, I suddenly felt, as if by instinct, the old man’s approach. I opened my eyes and saw his ghastly face pressed against my window.
This time I tried to get up, but it was impossible. It seemed as if all my limbs were paralyzed. After watching me carefully, the old man slipped away. I heard him go around the house and gently tap at the window of the room where Dorde and his wife slept. The child rolled over in his bed and moaned in his sleep. A few minutes of silence passed, then again I heard a knock at the window. The child moaned again and woke up…
‘Is that you, Grandpa?’ he asked.
‘It’s me’, a low voice replied. ‘I’ve brought your little yatagan.’
‘But I daren’t go out; Father’s forbidden me to!’
‘You needn’t go out, just open the window so you can come kiss me!’
The child got up and I heard him open the window. Calling upon all my energy to break my paralysis, I jumped out of bed and pounded on the wall. In a minute Dorde was awake. I heard him swear; his wife shrieked. Soon the whole house was gathered around the unconscious child. Gorcha had disappeared again. Our ministrations managed to revive the child, but he was weak and could hardly breathe. The poor boy did not know why he had fainted. His mother and Sdenka blamed it on the fear of being caught talking to his grandfather. I said nothing. After the child grew quiet, everyone except Dorde went back to bed.
Toward dawn I heard him wake his wife; the two talked quietly. Sdenka joined them and I heard the two women sobbing.
The child was dead.
I needn’t speak of the family’s despair. No one yet attributed the death to old Gorcha. At least, no one spoke of it openly.
Dorde was silent, but his still, dark expression had taken on a terrible quality. For two days, the old man did not reappear. On the night after the third day (the day of the child’s funeral) I thought I heard footsteps around the house, and a voice of an old man who called out to the deceased boy’s younger brother. For a moment, I seemed to see Gorcha’s figure outlined against my window, but I could not tell if it was reality or my imagination, because that night, the moon was covered by clouds. In any case, I thought it my duty to tell Dorde. He asked the boy, who replied that, yes, he had heard his grandfather calling him, and had seen him looking through the window. Dorde sternly ordered his son to wake him if the old man appeared again.
Even all these circumstances did not stop my love for Sdenka from growing even more.
“In the day, I couldn’t speak with her without the others overhearing. When night came, the thought of my imminent departure pierced my heart. Sdenka’s room was separated from mine by a passage that overlooked the street on one side and the courtyard on the other.
One evening, as the household retired for the evening, I decided to take a walk in the countryside to distract myself before sleeping. As I passed through the passage from my room, I saw that Sdenka’s door was ajar.
I stopped involuntarily. The familiar rustling of her dress made my heart pound. I heard words sung in a whisper. It was the song of a Serbian king about to leave for battle, bidding his beloved farewell.
‘Oh, my young poplar,’ said the old king,
‘I’m off to war and you will forget me!’
Your waist is more lissom than the slender young trees that grow at the foot of the mountain.
Your lips are redder than rowan-berries.
‘And I, I’m like an old oak stripped of leaves; my beard is whiter than the foam of the Danube!
‘You will forget me, O my soul, and I shall die of grief, for the enemy will not dare to kill the old king!’
And the beautiful maid replied:
I swear to be faithful to you and to never forget you.
‘And if I break my oath, may you wake from the dead to suck all the blood from my heart!’
And the old King said: ‘So be it!’
And he went to war. And how soon his lover forgot him!
Here Sdenka stopped, as if she were afraid to finish the song. I couldn’t contain myself any longer. Her voice, so sweet, so expressive, was the voice of the Duchess de Gramont… Impulsively, I pushed open the door and entered. Sdenka had removed her overblouse; she wore nothing but a chemise embroidered in gold and red silk that clung to her waist, and a simple checkered skirt. Her beautiful blonde tresses were unbraided, and her undress made her appear even more ravishing. Instead of being irritated at my sudden entrance, she seemed confused and blushed slightly.
‘What are you doing here? What will they think if they catch us?’
‘Sdenka, my soul,’ I said, ‘don’t worry, everyone is asleep, only the crickets in the grass and the beetles in the air can hear us.’
‘Oh, my friend, fly, fly! If my brother catches us, I’m lost!’
‘Sdenka, I’ll go when you promise to love me forever, like the beautiful maiden promised her king in the ballad. I’m leaving soon, Sdenka, who knows when we shall meet again! I love you more than my soul, more than my salvation… my life and my blood are yours… can’t you give me one hour in exchange?’
‘Many things can happen in an hour,’ Sdenka said, thoughtfully, but she left her hand in mine. ‘You don’t know my brother,’ she continued with a shudder, ‘I have a feeling he’ll find us.’
‘Calm yourself, my Sdenka,’ I told her. ‘Your brother is tired from his day’s work, he sits drowsing to the sound of the wind playing in the trees; his sleep is deep, the night is long, and I only ask you for a single hour! And then, farewell… perhaps forever!’
‘Oh, no, not forever!’ Sdenka cried, then recoiled as if afraid of her own voice.
‘Oh, Sdenka,’ I cried, ‘when I see you, when I hear you, I can’t control myself I obey a superior force. Forgive me, Sdenka!’ And like a fool I pressed her to my heart.
‘Oh, you’re not my friend!’ she said, breaking free of my arms and escaping deeper into her room. I don’t know how I replied to her, because I was confused by my audacity not that sometimes, on similar occasions, it hasn’t worked for me but despite my passion, I still had a sincere respect for Sdenka’s innocence.
In fact, I started to regale her with those dashing phrases that had always worked so well for me with beautiful ladies, but then, ashamed of myself, I stopped. The girl’s simplicity kept her from understanding what I hinted at, though all of you ladies, as I see by your smiles, have easily guessed.
So I stood there before her, unsure what to say, when suddenly I saw her flinch and stare at the window with a look of terror. I followed the direction of her eyes and distinctly saw the motionless figure of Gorcha, watching us from outside.
At that moment, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. I turned. It was Dorde.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.
Rattled by his brusque question, I pointed to his father peering in at us through the window. Gorcha disappeared as soon as Dorde saw him.
‘I heard the old man and I came to warn your sister,’ I said.
Dorde’s stare bored through me as if he were reading the depths of my soul. He took me by the arm and led me to my room, then left without a word.
The next day, the family was gathered in front of the house around a table laden with milk and cheese.
‘Where is the boy?’ asked Dorde.
‘In the courtyard, said his mother. ‘Playing his favorite game of fighting the Turks.’
Hardly had she uttered these words when to our great surprise we saw Gorcha’s imposing form, coming from the bottom of the woods and walking slowly towards us. He sat down at the table as he had done on the day that I arrived.
‘Father, welcome,’ murmured his daughter-in-law in a barely audible voice.
‘Welcome, father,’ repeated Sdenka and Petar quietly.
‘Father,” Dorde said in a firm voice, though his face had lost its color, ‘we’d like you to say grace.’
The old man turned away, frowning.
‘Say grace this instant!’ repeated Dorde, ‘and make the Sign of the Cross, or by St. George…’
Sdenka and her sister-in-law leaned toward the old man and begged him to say the prayers.
‘No, no, no!’ said the old man. ‘He has no right to order me around, and if he insists, then I curse him!’
Dorde got up and ran into the house. Soon he returned with fury in his eyes.
‘Where is the stake?’ he cried, ‘where did you hide the stake?’
Sdenka and Petar exchanged glances.
‘You dead thing!’ Dorde said to the old man, ‘What have you done with my eldest boy? Why did you kill my child? Give me back my son, you corpse!’
And as he spoke, he became increasingly pale, and his eyes blazed. The old man glared at him, motionless.
‘The stake, where is the stake!’ cried Dorde. ‘May all our misfortune fall on the head of whoever hid it!’
At that moment we heard the merry laughter of the youngest child and we saw him come towards us, riding the big stake like a horse and raising his little voice in the battle cry of the Serbs.
Dorde’s eyes lit up. He snatched the stake from the child and rushed towards his father. The creature screamed and ran in the direction of the wood with a speed practically supernatural for his age.
Dorde chased him through the fields and we soon lost sight of them.
The sun had set by the time Dorde came home, deathly pale, with his hair disheveled. As he sat by the fire, I seemed to hear his teeth chattering. Nobody dared question him. By the hour when the family was accustomed to retire for the evening, he seemed to recover his energy. Taking me aside, he said in the most natural way:
‘My dear sir, I have just seen the river. The ice has cleared, there is nothing to prevent your departure. There’s no need,’ he added, glancing at Sdenka, ‘to say goodbye to my family. On their behalf I wish you all the happiness in the world, and I hope that you also remember us fondly. Tomorrow, at daybreak, you will find your horse saddled and ready to follow your lead. Farewell, remembers your host sometimes, and forgive him if your stay here has not been as trouble-free as he would have liked.’
At that moment, the hard lines of Dorde’s face took on an almost cordial expression. He escorted me to my room and shook my hand one last time. Then he shivered, and his teeth chattered as if from the cold.
Left alone, I was too preoccupied to sleep, as you can imagine. I had loved many women in my life. I had experienced tenderness, and spite, and jealousy; but never, not even when leaving the Duchess de Gramont, had I felt the intense sadness that tore my heart at that moment. Before the sun had appeared, I put on my traveling clothes, hoping for one last conversation with Sdenka. But Dorde was waiting for me in the hallway. Any chance to say farewell to her was gone.
“I jumped on my horse and rode away, promising myself that I would return to the village on my way back from Jassy. My anticipation for the future as distant as it was gradually drove away my worries. I imagined my return with satisfaction, picturing all the details of a future meeting with Sdenka. Suddenly my horse started, almost throwing me out of the saddle. The beast stopped short, its forelegs braced, and snorted in alarm, as if danger were nearby. Looking around, I saw a wolf about a hundred paces in front of me, digging in the earth. Hearing me, it fled. Spurring my horse forward to the spot that the wolf had abandoned, I saw a fresh grave. I thought I could distinguish the tip of a stake, protruding a few inches above the earth that the wolf had disturbed. I didn’t stay to make sure, but quickly rode away.”
Here, the Marquis paused, and took a pinch of snuff.
“Is that all?” asked the ladies.
“Unfortunately, no!” replied M. d’Urfe. “The rest of the story is a painful memory for me; one I would give much to be free of.”
The business that brought me to Jassy kept me there longer than I had expected: a full six months. What can I say? It is a sad truth to admit but a truth nonetheless that there are few lasting emotions on this Earth. The success of my negotiations, the encouragement I received from the cabinet of Versailles in a word, all the unpleasant politics that have annoyed us so much of late in all of this my memory of Sdenka soon began to fade. And then there was the wife of the Gospodar, a very beautiful woman who speaks our language perfectly, and who had honored me on my arrival by singling me out from all the other young foreigners who were staying in Jassy. As steeped as I am in the principles of French gallantry, my Gallic blood would have revolted at the idea of repaying the kindness she showed me with ingratitude. So I responded obligingly to her advances, and to put myself in a position to advance the interests and rights of France I devoted myself to her as attentively as if I were the Gospodar himself.
When I was recalled to France, I took the same route back that had led me to Jassy.
I was not thinking of Sdenka or her family when one night, riding through the countryside, I heard a church bell strike eight. The sound seemed familiar, and my guide told me there was a monastery nearby. I asked him the name, and he told me that it was The Virgin of the Oak. I urged my horse on, and soon we were knocking at the door of the monastery. The hermit opened the door and led us to the guest house. It was so full of pilgrims that I had no urge to spend the night there, so I asked if I could find a house in the village.
‘You can find more than one,’ the hermit replied with a deep sigh. ‘Thanks to that infidel Gorcha there is no shortage of empty houses!’
‘What does that mean?’ I demanded of him. ‘Is Gorcha still alive?’
‘Oh, no; he’s well and truly buried, with a stake through his heart! But he sucked the blood of Dorde’s son. The child came back one night, crying at the door, saying he was cold and wanted to come in. His foolish mother, although she had seen him buried with her own eyes, didn’t have the courage to send him back to the cemetery, and opened the door. The boy threw himself on her and drained her blood until she died. They buried her as well, but she returned to suck the blood of her younger son, and then her husband, and then that of his brother. All are dead.’
‘And Sdenka?’ I said.
“She went mad with grief, poor child. Let’s not speak of her!”
The hermit’s answer was not encouraging and I didn’t have the courage to repeat my question.
‘Vampirism is contagious,’ continued the hermit, crossing himself. ‘Many families in the village have been affected, many families have been completely killed off, and if you want my advice, you’ll stay the night in the monastery. For though in the village you may not be devoured by vourdalaks, the dread will be enough to turn your hair white before I finish ringing the call to the Morning Mass.
‘I’m just a poor hermit,’ he continued, ‘but the generosity of travelers has enabled me to provide for their needs. I have exquisite cheeses, raisins that will make your mouth water just to look at them, and a few bottles of Tokay as fine as the wine of His Holiness the Patriarch!’
It seemed to me at this point that the hermit had turned into an innkeeper. I suspected that he was purposely telling me fairy tales to convince me to stay, and to make myself agreeable to heaven by imitating the generosity of those travelers who enabled the holy man to meet their needs.
But the word ‘fear’ has always affected me like a bugle affects a warhorse. I would have been ashamed of myself if I had not left for the village immediately. My guide, trembling, asked permission to stay at the monastery, which I willingly granted.
It took me about half an hour to reach the village. I found it deserted. Not a light shone in any of the windows, not a sound or a song could be heard. I passed in silence before all these houses, most of which I recognized, and finally arrived at Dorde’s home. Whether from sentimental memory or from the recklessness of youth, I decided to spend the night there.
I dismounted and knocked at the gate. Nobody answered. I pushed on the gate; it opened, creaking on its hinges. I entered the yard.
I tied my horse, still saddled, in a shed, where I found a sufficient supply of oats for one night, then I walked resolutely towards the house.
All the doors were open, yet all the rooms seemed uninhabited. Sdenka’s room looked as if it had been abandoned only the day before. Some of her clothes were still lying on the bed. On a table, I saw some jewelry that I had given her, shining in the moonlight. I recognized a small enamel cross that I had bought in Budapest. I could not deny to myself, though my heart sank at the thought, that my love for her was a thing of the past. Still, I wrapped myself in my coat and lay on her bed. Soon sleep overcame me.
I don’t remember the details of my dream, but I know that I saw Sdenka, as beautiful, innocent, and loving as before. I blamed myself for my selfishness and fickleness. I wondered how I could have abandoned this poor child who loved me, how I could have forgotten her. In my dream, her image merged with the Duchess de Gramont until I saw the two of them as one and the same person. I threw myself at her feet and begged her forgiveness. All of my being, all of my soul, was filled with an ineffable feeling, a mixture of melancholy and happiness.
I was deep in my dream, when I was half-awakened by a melodious sound, like the rustling of a wheat field in the breeze. The rustling wheat seemed to mingle with birdsong, with a rolling waterfall, with whispering trees. Then all these confused sounds resolved themselves into the rustle of a woman’s skirt and, as that thought came to me, I awoke. I opened my eyes and saw Sdenka near my bed. The moon shone so brightly that I could see every detail: adorable traits that were once so dear to me, and which in my dream I had prized even more. Sdenka seemed more beautiful and alluring than I remembered. She wore the same attire as before: the simple chemise embroidered with gold and silk thread, and a skirt that wrapped tightly around her hips.
‘Sdenka!’ I said, as I sat up in the bed, ‘is it really you, Sdenka?’
‘Yes, it’s me,’ she replied in a soft, sad voice. ‘It’s your Sdenka whom you had forgotten. Oh, why didn’t you come sooner? It’s too late now, you must go, a moment longer and you’re lost! Farewell, my friend, goodbye forever!’
‘Sdenka,’ I said, ‘so much has happened, I’ve been told of your tragedies. Come, let’s talk together; let me comfort you.’
‘Oh, my friend,’ she said, ‘don’t believe everything they say about us, but go, go as quickly as possible, because if you stay here, your doom is certain.’
‘But Sdenka, what danger threatens me? Can’t you give me an hour, just one hour, to spend with me?’
Sdenka started, and a strange change came over her features.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘an hour, an hour, just like when I sang the ballad of the old king and you walked into this room! Is that what you mean? Oh yes, I will give you an hour! But no ‘ she said, recovering himself, ‘go, go away! Go, why don’t you? I tell you, run away!… flee while you can!’
A wild energy animated her features.
I didn’t understand the reason for her words to me, but she was so beautiful that I decided to stay in spite of what she said. Finally, yielding to my entreaties, she sat down next to me, recalling old times, and blushingly telling me that she had loved me from the day that I arrived. Gradually, though, I noticed a change in her. Her former reserve had given way to a strange recklessness. Her eyes, once so shy, were now rather bold. At last, I realized with surprise that her manner towards me was far from the ladylike modesty of the past.
Is it possible, I thought, that Sdenka was not the pure and innocent young girl she seemed to be six months ago? Had she only worn that guise because she was afraid of her brother? Could I have been so grossly deceived? But then why did she beg me to go? Was this just a more subtle form of coquetry? I wondered, but it didn’t matter. If Sdenka wasn’t the Diana that I thought she was, well, I would compare her to another goddess, one no less charming, thank God! And I preferred the role of Adonis to Acteon.
If these classical references seem old-fashioned, mesdames, please remember that what I have the honor to tell you happened in the year of Our Lord 1758. Mythology was then all the rage, and I prided myself on being with the times. Things have changed since then, and it was not so long ago that the Revolution overthrew the relics of paganism, along with the Christian religion, putting the the Goddess of Reason in their place. This goddess, mesdames, was never my mistress when I found myself in your presence, and at the time of which I speak, I was even less inclined to offer her sacrifices. I surrendered without hesitation to my desire for Sdenka and went joyously into her arms.
“Some time had passed in sweet intimacy when, amusing myself by adorning Sdenka with all her jewelry, I tried to put the small enamel cross that I had given her around her neck. When I moved to do so, Sdenka recoiled with a shudder.
‘Enough of that childishness, my friend,’ she said. ‘Let those trinkets alone and tell me about what has been happening with you.’
“Her reaction started me thinking. Looking at her more carefully, I realized that she no longer wore around her neck, as she had in the past, the numerous little icons, relics, and sachets of incense that the Serbs wear from childhood to the grave.
‘Sdenka,’ I said, ‘where are the icons around your neck?’
‘I’ve lost them,’ she replied impatiently, and immediately changed the subject.
A vague foreboding, of I knew not what, dawned on me. I wanted to leave, but Sdenka stopped me.
‘What is this?’ she demanded. You asked me for an hour, and now you’re leaving after only a few minutes!
‘Sdenka,’ I said, ‘you were right to ask me to leave. I thought I heard a noise, and I’m afraid that someone will catch us!’
‘Don’t worry, my friend, everyone is sleeping; only the crickets in the grass and the beetles in the air can hear us!’
‘No, Sdenka, I must leave…!’
‘Stop, stop,’ Sdenka said. ‘I love you more than my soul, more than my salvation, you told me that your life and your blood were mine!’
‘But your brother, your brother, Sdenka! What if he catches us?’
‘Calm yourself, my soul; my brother is drowsing to the sound of the wind playing in the trees. His sleep is deep, the night is long and I only ask you for an hour!’
As she said that, Sdenka looked so beautiful that the vague terror that had been agitating me began to give way to my desire to stay with her. A mixture of fear and indescribable pleasure filled my whole being. As I faltered, Sdenka’s manner became even more tender; I gave in, promising myself all the while to be on my guard. But as I said earlier, I’ve never been good at doing things by halves, and when Sdenka, noticing my reserve, suggested that we chase away the chill of the evening with a few generous glasses of wine that she told me she had gotten from the good hermit, I accepted her offer with an eagerness that made her smile. The wine had its effect. By the second glass, the bad feeling I had over the cross and the missing icons had vanished completely. Sdenka, half-dressed, with her hair unbraided and her jewelry glittering in the moonlight, seemed irresistible. Unable to contain myself, I took her into my arms.
And then, mesdames, there occurred one of those mysterious miracles that I cannot explain, but whose existence my experiences have forced me to believe in, as much as I hate to admit it.
The force with which I’d embraced Sdenka drove the point of the cross I was wearing the one that the Duchess de Gramont had given me into my chest. The sharp pain went through me like a bolt of lightning. I looked at Sdenka and saw that her features, though still beautiful, were as stiff as death, that her eyes seemed not to see me, and that her smile was convulsed like the grin of a corpse. At the same time, I noticed in the room a nauseating stench, like that of a poorly sealed crypt. The awful truth stood before me in all its ugliness, and I remembered too late the hermit’s warnings.
I realized, too, how precarious my position was; everything depended on my courage and composure. I turned away from Sdenka to conceal the horror on my face. My eyes fell on the window, and I saw the infamous Gorcha, leaning on a bloodied stake and staring at me with the eyes of a hyena. At the other window I saw Dorde’s pale face, bearing at that moment a frightening resemblance to his father. Both of them were watching my movements and I had no doubt that they would attack me if I made the slightest attempt to escape. I pretended not to see them, and making a violent effort, I continued yes, mesdames I continued to caress Sdenka just as I had been before my terrible discovery. Meanwhile, I anxiously planned my escape. I noticed that Gorcha and Dorde exchanged impatient glances with Sdenka. From outside, I heard the voice of a woman and the cries of children, frightful howls like those of wildcats.
‘It’s time to go,’ I thought, ‘and the sooner the better!’
I said to Sdenka, in a voice loud enough for her hideous kin to hear:
‘I’m quite tired, my child. I’d like to lie down and sleep for a few hours, but first I should make sure that my horse has been fed. Stay here and wait for me.’
I kissed her cold pale lips and went out. In the shed, I found my horse agitated and covered with foam. He had not touched his oats, but his neighing as he saw me coming made me afraid that he might give my away. Luckily the vampires had heard my conversation with Sdenka, and weren’t alarmed. I checked that the gate was open, sprang into the saddle, and dug my spurs into the flanks of my horse.
As I passed out the gate, I had time to see the large band gathered around the house with their faces pressed against the windows. The suddeness of my exit must have kept them from noticing right away, because for some time all I could hear in the silence of the night was the steady gallop of my horse. I was congratulating myself on my escape when I heard a sound behind me, like a storm beating against the mountains. A thousand confused voices shouted, screamed and seemed to argue with each other. Then everything fell silent all at once, and I heard a trampling behind me like a troop of infantry approaching at a run.
I urged my mount on, my spurs tearing into his flanks. My heart beat, and I burned as if with fever, desperately trying to keep my presence of mind. Behind me, I heard a voice calling out:
‘Stop, stop, my friend! I love you more than my soul, I love you more than my salvation! Stop, stop, your blood is mine!’
At the same time, a cold breath brushed my ear and I felt Sdenka throw herself onto my horse, behind me.
‘My heart, my soul!’ she said to me, ‘When I see you, when I hear you, I can’t control myself. I obey a superior force. Forgive me, my friend, forgive me!’
And wrapping her arms around me, she tried to pull me to her and bite me in the throat. A terrible struggle ensued between us. Finally I managed to grab Sdenka by her braids in one hand, with my other arm around her waist. Bracing myself on my stirrups, I threw her down!
Immediately my strength left me and delirium seized me. A thousand insane, terrible, grimacing images pursued me. First Dorde and his brother Petar skimmed the road and tried to bar my way. They failed, and rejoicing, I turned and saw old Gorcha, hurtling down the road, using his stake like the Tyrolean mountaineers use poles to propel themselves across chasms. Him, too, I left in the dust.
Then his daughter-in-law, who dragged her children after her, threw one of her boys onto the point of his stake. Using the stake as a throwing-stick, Gorcha flung the child at me with all his strength. I avoided getting hit, but with truly bulldog-like instinct, the little toad clamped his jaws onto the neck of my horse; I pulled him off with difficulty. The other boy was hurled at me the same way, but he fell beyond the horse and was crushed under its hooves. I don’t remember anything else, or how I survived; but when I came to, it was broad daylight and I found myself lying on the road next to my dying steed.
And so ended, mesdames, a love affair that should have cured me forever of the desire for romance. Some of the contemporaries of your grandmothers could tell you whether I was any wiser in the future.
“I still shudder to think that if I had succumbed to my enemies, I would have become a vampire as well. But heaven did not allow that to happen, and far from thirsting for your blood, mesdames, I ask nothing better than that, old as I am, I should still shed mine in your defense!”
Written by Alexei Tolstoy