by G. J. Whyte-Melville
Leaning idly against the chimney-piece the other night, contemplating my companion in his usual attitude, my elbow happened to brush off the slab a Turkish coin of small value and utterly illegible inscription. How strangely things come back to one! I fancied myself once more on the yellow wave of the broad Danube; once more threading those interminable green hills that fringe its banks; once more wondering whether the forest of Belgrade had been vouchsafed to Eastern Europe as a type of Infinity, while its massive fortress, with frowning rampart and lethargic Turkish sentries, was intended to represent the combination of courage and sloth, of recklessness and imperturbability, of apparent strength and real inefficiency, which distinguishes most arrangements of the Ottoman Empire.
“Bakaloum” and “Bismillah!” “Take your chance!” and “Don’t care a d—n,” seem to be the watchwords of this improvident Government. It lets the ship steer herself; and she makes, I believe, as bad weather of it as might be expected under such seamanship.
Engrossed far less, I admit, with political considerations than with the picturesque appearance of a Servian population attending their market, I rather startled my friend with the abruptness of the following question:
“Do you believe there is such a thing as a Vampire?”
He rattled a little and almost rose to his feet, but re-seating himself, only rejoined,
“Why do you ask?”
“I was thinking,” I replied, “of that romantic-looking peasantry I used to see thronging the market-place of Belgrade. Of those tall, handsome men, with the scowl never off their brows, their hands never straying far from the bellyful of weapons they carried in their shawls. Of those swarthy wild-eyed women, with their shrill, rapid voices, their graceful, impatient gestures, carrying each of them the available capital of herself and family strung in coins about her raven hair, while on every tenth face at least, of both sexes, could not fail to be observed the wan traces of that wasting disease which seems to sap strength and vitality, gradually, and almost surely, as consumption itself. Yes, I think for every score of peasants I could have counted two of these ‘fever-faces,’ as the people themselves call their ague-ridden companions, though I ascertained after a while, when I came to know them better, that they attributed this decimation of their numbers, and faded appearance of the victims, rather to supernatural visitation than epidemic disease. They believe that in certain cases, where life has been unusually irregular, or the rites of religion reprehensibly neglected, the soul returns after death to its original tenement, and the corpse becomes revivified under certain ghastly conditions of a periodical return to the tomb and a continual warfare against its kind. An intermittent existence is only to be preserved at the expense of others, for the compact, while it permits reanimation, withholds the blood, ‘which is the life thereof.’ The stream must therefore be drained from friends, neighbours, early companions, nay, is most nourishing and efficacious when abstracted from the veins of those heretofore best beloved. So the Vampire, as this weird being is called, must steal from its grave in the dead of night, to sit by some familiar bedside till the sleeper shall be steeped in the unconsciousness of complete repose, and then puncturing a minute orifice in the throat, will suck its fill till driven back to its resting-place by the crimson streaks of day. Night after night the visits must be repeated; and so, week by week, the victim pines and droops and withers gradually away. There is no apparent illness, no ostensible injury, but the frame dwindles, the muscles fall, the limbs fail, the cheek fades, and the death-look, never to be mistaken, comes into the great haggard, hollow, wistful eyes. I have repeatedly asked the peasants whether they had ever met any of these supernatural visitants, for they spoke of them so confidently, one might have supposed the famished ghouls were flitting about the villages nightly; but though presumptive evidence was forthcoming in volumes, I was never fortunate enough to find an actual eye-witness. The sister of one had been frightened by them repeatedly; the cousin of another he had himself carried to her tomb, drained of her last life-drops by a relative buried some weeks before; and the grandmother of a third had not only met and talked with this inconvenient connection, expostulating with it on its depraved appetites, and generally arguing the point on moral as well as sanitary grounds, but had induced it by her persuasions, and the power of a certain amulet she wore, to abstain from persecuting a damsel in the neighbouring village for the same ghastly purpose, or, at least, to put off its visits till the horrid craving should be no longer endurable. Still I could meet nobody who had actually seen one in person; and that is why I asked you just now if you believed there was such a thing as a Vampire?”
He nodded gravely. “They are rare,” said he; “but I believe in such beings, because I have not only seen one, but had the advantage of its personal notice, and a very pretty, pleasing acquaintance it was! You would like to know something more? Well, it compromises nobody. You will not quote me, of course. Indeed I don’t see how you can, for I still mention no real names. I don’t mind telling you the story of a life, such as I knew it; a life that by some fatality seemed to drag down every other that came within the sphere of its attractions to sorrow, humiliation, and disgrace. I have no brain to swim, no pulses to leap, no heart to ache left, and yet the memory stirs me painfully even now.
“In early manhood,” he continued, bending down, as though to scan his own fleshless proportions, with an air of consciousness that was almost grotesque, “I paid as much heed to my personal appearance, and flourished it about in public places as persistently as others of like age and pursuits. Whether I should do so if I had my time to come again, is a different question, but we will let that pass. Being then young, tolerably good-looking, sufficiently conceited, and exceedingly well-dressed, I had betaken myself one evening to your Italian Opera, the best, and I may add the dearest, in Europe. I was fond of music and knew something about it, but I was fonder still of pretty women, though concerning these I enjoyed my full share of that ignorance which causes men so to exaggerate their qualities both good and bad; an ignorance it is worth while to preserve with as much care as in other matters we take to acquire knowledge, for there is no denying, alas! that those who know them best always seem to respect them least.
“I rose, therefore, from my stall at the first opportunity and turned round to survey the house. Ere I had inspected a quarter of it, my glasses were up, and I will tell you what they showed me—the most perfect face I ever saw. Straight nose, thin and delicately cut, large black eyes, regular eyebrows, faultless chin, terminating a complete oval, the whole set in a frame of jet-black hair. Even my next neighbour, who, from an observation he let fall to a friend, belonged apparently to the Household Troops, could not refrain from ejaculating, ‘By Jove, she’s a ripper!’ the moment he caught sight of the object on which my gaze was fixed.
“I saw something else too. I saw that the lady by her side was a foreigner with whom I had long been acquainted; so edging my way into the passages, in two minutes I was tapping at their box-door like a man who felt pretty sure of being let in.
“The foreigner introduced me to her friend, and as the second act of the opera was already in progress, told me to sit down and hold my tongue. We were four in the box. Another gentleman was placed close behind the lady who first attracted my attention. I had only eyes just then, however, for the wild, unearthly beauty of my new acquaintance.
“I have seen hundreds of pretty women, and even in youth my heart, from temperament, perhaps, rather than reflection, was as hard as my ribs; but this face fascinated me—I can use no other word. My sensations were so strangely compounded of admiration, horror, interest, curiosity, attraction, and dislike. The eyes were deep and dark, yet with the glitter in them of a hawk’s, the cheek deadly pale, the lips bright red. She was different from anything I had ever seen, and yet so wonderfully beautiful! I longed to hear her speak. Presently she whispered a few words to the man behind her, and I felt my flesh creep. Low as they were modulated, there was in every syllable a tone of such utter hopelessness, such abiding sorrow, regret, even remorse, always present, always kept down, that I could have imagined her one of those lost spirits for whom is fixed the punishment of all most cruel, most intolerable, that they can never forget they are formed for better things. Her gestures, too, were in accordance with the sad, suggestive music of her voice—quiet, graceful, and somewhat listless in the repose, as it seemed, rather of unhappiness than of indolence. I tell you I was not susceptible; I don’t think boys generally are. In love, more than in any other extravagance, ‘there is no fool like an old one.’
“I was as little given to romance as a ladies’ doctor; and yet, sitting in that box watching the turn of her beautiful head as she looked towards the stage, I said to myself, ‘I’ll take good care she never gets the upper hand of me. If a man once allowed himself to like her at all, she is just the sort of woman who would blight his whole life for him, and hunt the poor devil down to his grave!’ Somebody else seemed to have no such misgivings, or to have arrived at a stage of infatuation when all personal considerations had gone by the board. If ever I saw a calf led to the slaughter it was Count V——, a calf, too, whose throat few women could have cut without compunction. Handsome, manly, rich, affectionate, and sincere, worshipping his deity with all the reckless devotion, all the unscrupulous generosity of his brave Hungarian heart, I saw his very lip quiver under its heavy moustache when she turned her glittering eyes on him with some allusion called up by the business of the stage, and the proud, manly face that had never quailed before an enemy grew white in the intensity of its emotion. What made me think of a stag I once found lying dead in a Styrian pass, and a golden eagle feasting on him with her talons buried in his heart?
“The Gräfinn, to whom the box belonged, noticed my abstraction. ‘Don’t fall in love with her,’ she whispered; ‘I can’t spare you just yet. Isn’t she beautiful?’
“‘You introduced me,’ was my answer, ‘but you never told me her name.’
“‘How stupid!’ said the Gräfinn. ‘At present she is a Madame de St. Croix, an Englishwoman, nevertheless, and a widow, but not likely to remain so long.’ And with a mischievous laugh she gave me her hand as I left the box, bowing to Madame de St. Croix and also to the Hungarian, who in his happy pre-occupation was perfectly unconscious of my politeness.
“I saw them again in the crush-room. The Gräfinn had picked up an attaché to some legation, who put her dutifully into her carriage. The Hungarian was still completely engrossed with Madame de St. Croix. I have not yet forgotten the look on his handsome face when she drove off with her friend. ‘He’s a fool,’ I said to myself; ‘and yet a woman might well be proud to make a fool of such a man as that.’
“I left London in the middle of the season and thought no more of Madame de St. Croix. I had seen a pretty picture, I had heard a strain of sweet music, I had turned over the page of an amusing romance—there was an end of it.
“The following winter I happened to spend in Vienna. Of course I went to one of the masked balls of The Redouten-Saal. I had not been ten minutes in the room when my ears thrilled to the low, seductive accents of that well-remembered voice. There she was again, masked, of course, but it was impossible to mistake the slim, pliant figure, the graceful gestures, the turn of the beautiful head, and the quiet energy that betrayed itself, even in the small, gloved hand. She was talking to a well-known Russian magnate less remarkable for purity of morals than diplomatic celebrity, boundless extravagance, and devotion to the other sex. To be on terms of common friendship with such a man was at least compromising to any lady under sixty years of age; and it is needless to say that his society was courted and appreciated accordingly.
“Madame de St. Croix seemed well satisfied with her neighbour; and though in her outward manner the least demonstrative of women, I could detect through her mask the same cruel glitter in her dark eyes that had so fascinated me, six months before, in the Gräfinn’s opera-box. The Russian talked volubly, and she leaned towards him, as those do who are willing to hear more. Château qui parle furls its banner, femme qui écoute droops her head. Directly opposite, looking very tall and fierce as he reared himself against the doorway, stood Count V——. The Hungarian was pale as death. On his face, so worn and haggard, so cruelly altered since I saw it last, was set the stamp of physical pain, and he gnawed the corner of his brown moustache with that tension of the muscles about the mouth which denotes a paroxysm bravely kept down. As friends accosted him in passing, he bowed his head kindly and courteously while his whole face softened, but it was sad to see how soon the gleam passed away and the cloud came back, darker and heavier than before. The man’s heart, you see, was generous, kindly, and full of trust—such a heart as women like Madame de St. Croix find it an interesting amusement to break.
“I think he must have made her some kind of appeal; for later in the evening I observed them together, and he was talking earnestly in German, with a low pleading murmur, to which I thought few women could have listened unmoved. She answered in French; and I was sorry for him when she broke up the colloquy with a little scornful shrug of her shoulders, observing in a hard, unfeeling tone not like her usual voice, ‘Que voulez-vous? Enfin, c’est plus fort que moi!’
“The Russian put her into her sledge, for there was a foot of snow in the streets, and
Count V—— walked home through it, with a smile on his face and his head up, looking strangely elated, I thought, for a man, the last strand of whose moorings had lately parted and left him adrift.
“I had not then learned there is no temporary stimulant so powerful as despair, no tonic so reviving as a parti pris.
“Next day, lounging into the Chancellerie of the Embassy for my usual gossip, I found little Hughes, an unpaid attaché (who earned, indeed, just as much as he received), holding forth with considerable spirit and energy.
“‘Curse him!’ said this indomitable young Briton. ‘If it had been swords, I should like to have fought him myself. I hate him! I tell you. Everybody hates him. And V—— was the best chap between here and Orsova. He was almost like an Englishman. Wouldn’t he just have polished him off if they’d had swords. That old muff, Bergheimer of the Cuirassiers, ought to be hanged. Do you think, if I’d been his second, I’d have put him up with pistols against the best shot in Europe?—and at the barrier too! It’s not like at home, you know. I never knew such a mull as they made of it amongst them. This cursed Calmuck gets the pull all through, and poor V——, who had lost his fortune already, loses his lady-love and his life. What a rum world it is!’
“Here the orator rolled and lit a cigarette, thus affording me a moment to inquire into the cause of his indignation. I then learned that, in consequence of a trifling dispute after last night’s ball, a duel had been fought at daybreak, in the snow, between Count V—— and a Russian nobleman, in which the former was shot through the heart.
“‘Never got one in at all!’ said Hughes, again waxing eloquent on his friend’s wrongs. ‘I’ve seen both the seconds since. They were to walk up to a handkerchief, and the Russian potted him at forty yards the first step he made. They may say what they like about the row originating in politics—I know better.
They quarrelled because Madame de St. Croix had left V—— and taken up with this snub-nosed Tartar. First, she ruined my poor friend. I know all about it. He hadn’t a rap left; for if she’d asked him for the shirt off his back, he’d have stripped like beans! Then she broke his heart—the cheeriest, jolliest, kindest fellow in Europe—to finish up by leaving him for another man, who kills him before breakfast without a scruple; and if the devil don’t get hold of her some fine day, why he’s a disgrace to his appointment, that’s all! and they ought to make him Secretary of Legation here, or pension him off somewhere and put him out of the way! Have another cigarette!’
“Ten years afterwards I was sitting in the gardens of the Tuileries, one fine morning towards the middle of May, wondering, as English people always do wonder, on a variety of subjects—why the cigars were so bad in Paris, and the air so exhilarating—why the tender green leaves quivering over those deep alleys should have a sunshine of their own besides that which they reflected from above—why the bonnes and nursery-maids wore clean caps every day—why the railings always looked as if they had been re-gilt the same morning, and why the sentry at the gate should think it part of his duty to leer at every woman who passed, like a satyr?
“Indeed I believe I was almost asleep, when I started in my chair, and rubbed my eyes to make sure it was not a dream. There, within ten paces of me, sat Madame de St. Croix, if I was still to call her so, apparently not an hour older than the first time we met. The face was even paler, the lips redder, the cruel eyes deeper and darker, but in that flickering light the woman looked more beautiful than ever. She was listening quietly and indolently, as of old, to a gentleman who sat with his back to me, telling his own story, whatever it might be, in a low, earnest, impressive voice. I raised my hat when I caught her eye, and she bowed in return politely enough, but obviously without recognition. The movement caused her companion to turn round, and in two strides he was by my chair, grasping me cordially by the hand. He was an old and intimate friend, a colonel in the French army, by whose side I had experienced more than one strange adventure, both in Eastern Europe and Asia-Minor—a man who had served with distinction, of middle age, a widower, fond of society, field-sports, speculation, and travelling; essentially bon camarade, but thoroughly French in his reflections and opinions. The last man in the world, I should have thought, to be made a fool of by a woman. Well, there he was, her bounden slave! Absurdly happy if she smiled, miserable when she frowned, ready to fetch and carry like a poodle, perfectly childish about her, and utterly contemptible. If she had really cared for him, the temptation must have been irresistible, and she would have bullied him frightfully. But no, there was always the same repose of manner, the same careless kindness, the same melancholy, the same consciousness of an unquestionable superiority. One of his reasons, he soon confided to me, for being so fond of her was, that they never had an angry word! For a week or two I saw a good deal of them. Paris was already empty, and we did our plays, our Opéra Comique, and our little dinners pleasantly enough. She was always the same, and I found myself, day by day, becoming more conscious of that nameless charm about her, which I should despair of being able to describe. Yet as often as I met the glance of those deep, dark, unearthly eyes, a shudder crept over me, such as chills you when you come face to face with a ghost in your dreams. The colonel, I have said, was devoted to her. He was rarely absent from her side, but if by chance alone with me, would talk of her by the hour.
“He had found, he declared, fortunately before he was too old to appreciate it, the one inestimable treasure the earth contained. He had cherished his fancies, committed his follies, of course, tout comme un autre, but he had never experienced anything like this. It was his haven, his anchorage, his resting-place, and he might glide down into old age, and on to death, perfectly happy, because confident, that with her heart and her force of character, she would never change. He could not be jealous of her. Oh no! She was so frank, so confiding, so sincere. She, too, passé par là, had told him so; unlike other women, had confessed to him not only her last, but her many former attachments. He knew all about poor V——, who was shot in a duel, and the Russian general, banished to Siberia. How fortunate she had broken with him before his disgrace, because, in the loyalty of her nature, she would surely have followed him into exile, although she never cared for him in her heart, never! No, nor for any of the others; never had been fairly touched till now. Him, the colonel, she really did love. He had proved his devotion so thoroughly (I found out afterwards, though not from him, that my friend had been fool enough to sacrifice both fortune and profession for her sake), he was so reliable, she said, so kind, and so good. In short, he was perfectly happy, and could see no cloud in his horizon, look which way he would.
“When I left Paris they accompanied me to the railway station; and the last I saw of them was their two heads very close over a railway guide, projecting a trip into a lonely part of Switzerland, where they would have no society but their own.
“Six months afterwards ‘Galignani’ informed me that my friend the colonel had been reinstated in the French army and appointed to a regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique then serving in Algeria, where, before the Tuileries Gardens were again green, I learned from the same source he had already solved the great problem in an affair of outposts with the Khabyles. Long years elapsed, and there were streaks of grey in my hair and whiskers ere I saw Madame de St. Croix again. I had heard of her, indeed, at intervals both in London and Paris. I am bound to say her name was always coupled with those who were distinguished by birth, talent, or success. She was very choice, I believe, in the selection of her victims, despising equally an easy conquest and one of which the ravages could be readily repaired. The women hated her, the men said she was charming. For my part I kept out of her way: we were destined to meet, nevertheless. I had embarked in a Peninsular and Oriental steamer at Marseilles very much indisposed, and retiring at once to my berth never quitted it till we were entering the Straits of Buoni-faccio. Here I came on deck, weak, exhausted, but convalescent, drinking in the sunshine and the scenery with that thirst for the beautiful which becomes so fierce after the confinement of recent illness. I literally revelled in the Mediterranean air, and basked in the warmth of those bright colours so peculiar to the shores of that summer sea. I was approaching middle age; I had ventured body and mind freely enough in the great conflict; and yet, I thank heaven, had hitherto been spared the crushing sorrow that makes a mockery of the noblest and purest enjoyments of earth, causing a man to turn from all that is fairest in sight and sense and sound with the sickness of a dead hope curdling at his heart. But then I had kept clear of Madame de St. Croix.
“When my eyes were at last sated with the gaudy hues of the coast and the golden glitter of the water, I was a little surprised to see that lady sitting within three paces of me reading a yellow-bound French novel. Great heaven! what was the woman’s secret? She looked younger than ever! Even in the searching glare of a southern noon not a line could be detected on the pure, pale forehead, not a crease about the large, wistful, glittering eyes. That she was gifted with perennial youth I could see for myself; that she was dangerous even to the peace of a grey-haired man, I might have found out to my cost had our voyage been retarded by contrary winds or any such unavoidable delay, for she was good enough to recognise me on this occasion, and to give me a large share of her conversation and companionship. Thus it was I learned to own the spell under which so many had succumbed, to appreciate its power, not to understand, far less describe, its nature. Fortunately for me, ere its work could be completed, we arrived at Athens, and at Athens lay a trim, rakish-looking English yacht, with her ensign flying and her foretopsail loosed, waiting only the steamer’s arrival to spread her wings and bear off this seductive sorceress to some garden of paradise in the Egean Sea.
“The owner of the yacht I had often heard of. He was a man remarkable for his enterprise and unfailing success in commerce as for his liberality, and indeed extravagance, in expenditure. He chose to have houses, pictures, horses, plate, everything of the best, was justly popular in society, and enormously rich.
“I never asked and never knew the port to which that yacht was bound. When we steamed out of the harbour she was already hull-down in the wake of a crimson sunset that seemed to stain the waters with a broad track of blood; but I saw her sold within eighteen months at Southampton, for her late owner’s name had appeared in the ‘Gazette,’ and the man himself, I was told, might be found, looking very old and careworn, setting cabbages at Hanwell, watching eagerly for the arrival of a lady who never came.
“You may believe I thought more than once of the woman whose strange destiny it had been thus to enslave generation after generation of fools, and to love whom seemed as fatal as to be a priest of Aricia or a favourite of Catharine II. Nevertheless, while time wore on, I gradually ceased to think of her beauty, her heartlessness, her mysterious youth, or her magic influence over mankind. Presently, amongst a thousand engrossing occupations and interests, I forgot her as if she had never been.“I have driven a good many vehicles in my time, drags, phaetons, dogcarts, down to a basket-carriage drawn by a piebald pony with a hog-mane. Nay, I once steered a hansom cab up Bond Street in the early morning, freighted with more subalterns than I should like to specify of her Majesty’s Household Troops, but I never thought I should come to a bath chair!
“Nevertheless I found myself at last an inside passenger of one of these locomotive couches, enjoying the quiet and the air of the gardens at Hampton Court in complete and uninterrupted solitude. The man who dragged me to this pleasant spot having gone to ‘get his dinner,’ as he called it, and the nursery-maids, with their interesting charges, having retired from their morning, and not yet emerged for their afternoon stroll, I lay back, and thought of so many things—of the strength and manhood that had departed from me for ever; of the strange, dull calm that comes on with the evening of life, and contents us so well we would not have its morning back if we could; of the gradual clairvoyance that shows us everything in its true colours and at its real value; of the days, and months, and years so cruelly wasted, but that their pleasures, their excitements, their sins, their sorrows, and their sufferings, were indispensable for the great lesson which teaches us to see. Of these things I thought, and through them still, as at all times, moved the pale presence of an unforgotten face, passing like a spirit, dim and distant, yet dear as ever, across the gulf of years—a presence that, for good or evil, was to haunt me to the end.
“Something in the association of ideas reminded me of Madame de St. Croix, and I said to myself, ‘At last age must have overtaken that marvellous beauty, and time brought the indomitable spirit to remorse, repentance, perhaps even amendment. What can have made me think of her in a quiet, peaceful scene like this?’
“Just then a lady and gentleman crossed the gravel walk in front of me, and took their places on a seat under an old tree not a dozen yards off. It was a lovely day in early autumn; the flowers were still ablaze with the gaudiest of their summer beauty, the sky was all dappled grey and gold, earth had put on the richest dress she wears throughout the year; but here and there a leaf fell noiseless on the sward, as if to testify that she too must shed all her glories in due season, and yield, like other beauties, her unwilling tribute to decay.
“But there was nothing of autumn in the pair who now sat opposite my couch, chatting, laughing, flirting, apparently either ignoring or disregarding my proximity. The man was in all the bloom and beauty of youth; the woman, though looking a few years older, did not yet seem to have attained her prime. I could scarcely believe my eyes! Yes, if ever I beheld Madame de St. Croix, there she sat with her fatal gaze turned on this infatuated boy, leading him gradually, steadily, surely, to the edge of that chasm into which those who plunged came to the surface nevermore. It was the old story over again. How well I remembered, even after such an interval, the tender droop of the head, the veiling eyelashes, the glance so quickly averted, yet, like a snapshot, telling with such deadly effect; the mournful smile, the gentle whisper, the quiet confiding gesture of the slender hand, all the by-play of the most accomplished and most unscrupulous of actresses. There was no more chance of escape for her companion than for a fisherman of the North Sea, whose skiff has been sucked into the Maëlstrohm, with mast unshipped and oars adrift half a mile astern. By sight, if not personally, I then knew most of the notabilities of the day. The boy, for such I might well call him in comparison with myself, seemed too good for his fate, and yet I saw well enough it was inevitable. He had already made himself a name as a poet of no mean pretensions, and held besides the character of a high-spirited, agreeable, and unaffected member of society. Add to this, that he was manly, good-looking, and well-born; nothing more seemed wanting to render him a fit victim for the altar at which he was to be offered up. Like his predecessors, he was fascinated. The snake held him in her eye. The poor bird’s wings were fluttering, its volition was gone, its doom sealed. Could nothing save it from the destroyer? I longed to have back, if only for a day, the powers which I had regretted so little half-an-hour ago. Weak, helpless, weary, and worn-out, I yet determined to make an effort, and save him if I could.
“They rose to go, but found the gate locked through which they had intended to pass. She had a way of affecting a pretty wilfulness in trifles, and sent him to fetch the key. Prompt to obey her lightest wish, he bounded off in search of it, and following slowly, she passed within two paces of my chair, bending on its helpless invalid a look that seemed to express far less pity for his condition than a grudging envy of his lot. I stopped her with a gesture that in one more able-bodied would have been a bow, and, strange to say, she recognised me at once. There was not a moment to lose. I took courage from a certain wistful look that gave softness to her eyes, and I spoke out.
“‘We shall never meet again,’ I said; ‘we have crossed each other’s paths at such long intervals, and on such strange occasions, but I know this is the last of them! Why time stands still for you is a secret I cannot fathom, but the end must come some day, put it off however long you will. Do you not think that when you become as I am, a weary mortal, stumbling with half-shut eyes on the edge of an open grave, it would be well to have one good deed on which you could look back, to have reprieved one out of the many victims on whom you have inflicted mortal punishment for the offence of loving you so much better than you deserve? Far as it stretches behind you, every footstep in your track is marked with sorrow—more than one with blood.
Show mercy now, as you may have to ask it hereafter. Life is all before this one, and it seems cruel thus to blast the sapling from its very roots. He is hopeful, trustful, and fresh-hearted—spare him and let him go.’
“She was fitting the glove on her faultless little hand. Her brow seemed so calm, so soft and pure, that for a moment I thought I had conquered, but looking up from her feminine employment, I recognised the hungry glitter in those dark, merciless eyes, and I knew there was no hope.
“‘It is too late,’ she answered, ‘too late to persuade either him or me. It is no fault of mine. It is fate. For him—for the others—for all of us. Sometimes I wish it had not been so. Mine has been an unhappy life, and there seems to be no end, no resting-place. I can no more help myself than a drowning wretch, swept down by a torrent; but I am too proud to catch at the twigs and straws that would break off in my hand. I would change places with you willingly. Yes—you in that bath chair. I am so tired sometimes, and yet I dare not wish it was all over. Think of me as forbearingly as you can, for we shall not cross each other’s path again.’
“‘And this boy?’ I asked, striving to detect something of compunction in the pitiless face that was yet so beautiful.
“‘He must take his chance with the rest,’ she said. ‘Here he comes—good-bye.’
“They walked away arm-in-arm through the golden autumn weather, and a chill came into my very heart, for I knew what that chance was worth.
“A few months, and the snow lay six inches deep over the grave of him whose opening manhood had been so full of promise, so rich in all that makes youth brightest, life most worth having; while a woman in deep mourning was praying there, under the wintry sky; but this woman was his mother, and her heart was broken for the love she bore her boy.
“His death had been very shocking, very sudden. People talked of a ruptured blood-vessel, a fall on his bedroom floor, a doctor not to be found when sent for; a series of fatalities that precluded the possibility of saving him; but those who pretended to know best affirmed that not all the doctors in Europe could have done any good, for when his servant went to call him in the morning he found his master lying stark and stiff, having been dead some hours. There was a pool of blood on his carpet; there were ashes of burnt letters in his fireplace; more, they whispered with meaning shrugs and solemn, awe-struck faces—
‘There was that across his throat
Which you had hardly cared to see.’
“You can understand now that I believe in Vampires.”
“What became of her?” I asked, rather eagerly, for I was interested in this Madame de St. Croix. I like a woman who goes into extremes, either for good or evil. Great recklessness, equally with great sensibility, has its charm for such a temperament as mine. I can understand, though I cannot explain, the influence possessed by very wicked women who never scruple to risk their own happiness as readily as their neighbours’. I wanted to know something more about Madame de St. Croix, but he was not listening; he paid no attention to my question. In a tone of abstraction that denoted his thoughts were many miles away, he only murmured,
“Insatiate—impenetrable—pitiless. The others were bad enough in all conscience, but I think she might have spared the boy!”
The narrator recounts his recurring encounters over many years with the mysterious and alluring Madame de St. Croix, who seems to maintain eternal youth and beauty while spellbinding a succession of men. Each relationship ends in ruin or death.
The narrator first sees Madame de St. Croix at the opera, captivated by her beauty but sensing something sinister. He later sees her enthrall and destroy a Hungarian count named V—-. Years afterwards in Vienna, the narrator learns Madame de St. Croix is now attached to a Russian man, while Count V—- was recently killed in a duel linked to her. In Paris, the narrator finds an old French colonel friend besotted with Madame de St. Croix, until the colonel later dies after ruining himself for her. Much later, the narrator sees Madame de St. Croix with an English millionaire who is soon financially destroyed. Finally, the narrator witnesses Madame de St. Croix fascinating a young English poet but is unable to warn him before the poet is found dead in mysterious circumstances. The narrator comes to believe Madame de St. Croix is a ruthless “Vampire” who maintains eternal youth by draining the life and vitality from the men who love her, leaving tragedy in her wake.
George John Whyte-Melville (1821-1878) was a prolific Scottish novelist and poet who pioneered the sporting novel genre. Born into an affluent family in Scotland, Whyte-Melville attended Eton College and served in the army for nearly ten years where he developed passions for riding and hunting. His first novel, “Digby Grand” (1857), was a lighthearted story set in hunting fields and established his reputation as a writer. Over the next two decades, he published over a dozen novels focusing on sports, military life, and adventure. His works like “Kate Coventry”, “The Gladiators”, and “Riding Recollections” evoked the cavalier spirit of the English gentleman and nostalgic provincial life. Though not considered a literary giant, Whyte-Melville was admired by the likes of Henry James for vividly capturing the sporting country life of 19th century England. He led a reckless life as a hunter and rider which impacted his health, eventually dying at age 57 from a hunting accident. Nonetheless, Whyte-Melville played a key role in popularizing the sports fiction genre.