The Guests of the Duke

The Duke. © Tim South
I think that sometimes you see things that others cannot. Am I right? Think about it, Mister Butler.

In 1934 I travelled to Eastern Europe, drawn to the stories of innumerable wars, of arrogant and petty princedoms, of crumbling castles, and of peoples and cultures that seemed both passionate and erratic.

Looking back, I wonder if some of my memories of that time were affected, by lack of sleep, worry, or perhaps inebriation from Heaven knows what food or drink I may have had to ingest. I had been travelling for over three years since the death of my wife, without significant pause, and while I had grown accustomed to the habit of never staying in one place too long before moving on again, I was still at heart a lover of hearth and home. Perhaps I was finally coming to the end of my tether.

After my safari in Kenya, I had spent more time in Istanbul, and then decided to visit the Crimean Peninsula, with a view to seeing for myself some of the disastrous battlefields of the Russian War that I had seen in the rough photographs of that time. I had taken passage on the Hikmat, a small steamer moving up the coast of the Black Sea, making a supply run into the ports of Bulgaria and Romania, and on the ship I made the acquaintance of another Englishman named Ronald Howarth, who was travelling as an agent for a Glasgow export firm. He had a schedule that was so relaxed he was virtually a tourist. He had been to many of the Eastern European cities and towns, particularly on the coast, but always found more interesting things to experience, and he seemed keen to share them with me. We had been steaming for over a week, and had visited numerous places in Bulgaria, when he said to me,

"Now listen up, old chap. We're reaching Romania tomorrow. There's a little village that I've only passed through, and I'm quite keen to see it close up. It's rather backward, even for a Slavic village, and it doesn't seem to appear in much travel literature, for some unknown reason. That might make it all the more interesting! I've met the officials, and I'll introduce you. That way we should be able to get a better look at the town."

I had a rather cumbersome map of Romania that I had purchased in Varna, and I began to wrestle with it to see what I could learn. As I struggled with the map, Howarth looked on. Eventually he said,

"Look, you won't have to use that, old boy. One finds one's way around there without any trouble - the locals always seem to be at your elbow, ready to point the way. I find it rather spooky, to be honest."

I folded the map back into a crumpled rectangle. It only occurred to me much later that he had never told me the name of the village, and I had never thought to ask.

We docked at one of the smaller fishing ports, and then made our way inland by train for an hour or so, through hills and valleys covered with dense forest. The village was very beautiful - the cottages and churches seemed as if they had been put together hundreds of years ago, and the people also, in their dress and behaviour, seemed to have sprung from some mediaeval age, as if any moment a band of marauding invaders would thunder into the square to rape and plunder. The square was empty except for a few rickety tables and chairs beside the inn. Two large oak trees towered over the cottages, and a handful of the townsfolk moved past on their daily chores.

On the side of a steep, forest covered ridge overlooking the town was a castle. This came as no surprise, as castles are to be found on every second hill in Europe. But this one was rather singular - it seemed as if it had been constructed to lean to one side, like a huge rock fractured in some dark primeval time. It was only upon closer scrutiny that one could make out windows, balconies and parapets.

"That's the residence of the Voivode," said Howarth. "His title of 'Duke' is mostly honorary, although he's descended from the line of rulers of this part of the country from hundreds of years ago. He doesn't rule as a Voivode, but he's the equivalent of Mayor, and he's the man I've dealt with in my capacity as an agent. When I was last here, he invited me to stay overnight in the castle. I didn't have time, unfortunately. But if he invites us again, we may be in for quite a remarkable experience!"

Howarth and I entered the inn to take a rest from the journey. Inside were two of the townsfolk, sitting, drinking ale in rough steins. Howarth struck up conversation, and they seemed quite happy to respond. As the conversation turned to the Duke, the villagers seemed to become a little uncomfortable. One of them crossed his arms and said,

"You must be wary of the Duke. He can be kind, and a generous friend, but oh, he can so easily turn - he will rarely forgive, and never forget, it is said he has the memory of the Sphinx. Some say his kin were cursed long ago, damned with the ancient blood curse, and that it still moves in his veins, however diluted it has been by the generations. It is said that the first Prince of his descent lost the grace of the Lord - his wife, tending victims of the black pestilence, was herself taken... Stricken by overwhelming grief, the Voivode tried to kill himself... some say he succeeded, and returned, others that his soul was seized by the Devil, like all those who tried to end their own life. He lived for far too long after his allotted span, and as the years went on, it seemed there were too many deaths in the lands surrounding the castle that could not be explained. He was chained to the wall inside a vault, then the vault was bricked up, yet his muffled screams were heard for weeks. Even after such bitter measures, there has never been a time in this land when every death had a natural cause."

"I say, what sort of curse are you talking about?" I asked.

The man seemed uncomfortable with my question, but in a low voice he replied,

"The curse that cannot be killed, that feeds off the life of others. That which has been forsaken by God, that which must live forever in darkness, that which can only be fought in ways ordained."

I didn't quite know what he meant, but I had learnt that in this part of the world it was common for the folk to talk in superstitious riddles, so I paid it no heed. It was obvious I would have no rational answer. The villagers made the sign of the cross, and said no more. Howarth leant over and whispered,

"See! I told you it was an interesting place!"

Our conversation continued for a while... but after his second ale, Howarth's attitude seemed to turn sour, and he began to hector the villagers as if they were colonial subjects. I leant over and muttered,

"Look, Howarth, isn't it time we were off?"

"Hmmph. Doesn't hurt to remind 'em who runs the show. Alright then."

After we had finished our drinks, we wandered through the village. Then, as the sun began to set, Howarth suggested we make our way to the castle. As we came closer, my sense of its erratic construction grew. It seemed to make no concession towards any kind of symmetry, nor indeed any care to adhere to the horizontal, and I began to wonder how it managed to avoid collapsing altogether. There appeared to be ladders fixed between various protrusions, and high on the ramparts sat gargoyles that did not seem to reflect any emotion that their creators may have intended, but rather conveyed alien, indescribable emotions of a random nature, as if the stone had melted over the centuries. From somewhere high up the wind blew through a crevice in the masonry to create a sustained tone, like the flawed diapason of some great organ.

We were admitted to the castle through a side door by a gaunt man with a long beard wearing a fez. His clothes were grimy and threadbare, yet there were little bells attached to the toes of his boots which made a ludicrous tinkling sound as he walked. He wore an enormous key hanging from his neck by a leather strap, though I never saw a keyhole in any door in the castle. Howarth later told me that the Duke had described the man as his 'fox carrier', although I couldn't even begin to guess what that might have originally meant. The hall of the castle gave a similar impression to the outside - every door was a different size and shape, stairways seemed to go nowhere, claw-like hooks clutched at shreds of tapestries long vanished, and the chandeliers made one think of the nests of some horrid monstrous insect, still to return from its hunting. Everything was dark and rough-hewn, and the centuries of dust and cold basement smell merely complemented the effect. Somehow I could not shake the impression that nobody had ever lived here.

"Ah! Mister Howarth! It is a joy to see you once again!"

The Duke was an Albino. Howarth introduced me, but, like so many Slavic names, the Duke's was rather formidable, containing too many of the difficult letters of the alphabet, and I found it impossible to remember on one hearing alone. From then on it would have been rude to ask again, but despite listening carefully for his name to recur in conversation, it never came up, and so I never learnt it. He was a tall, thin man, dressed in dark, well tailored clothing cut in a fin de siècle fashion. He seemed to speak as if distracted, in a quiet voice, and was constantly looking away, but every so often an enormous, almost manic smile would leap onto his face, bearing no relation to what he had been talking about. He wore several rings on each hand, and his fingers were abnormally long and thin, with pointed nails, and I wondered if he suffered from one of those genetic diseases that elongate the limbs.

"It is always a pleasure for me to meet another Englishman. It would do me great honour if you would stay under the protection of my roof for as long as you are here."

Of course we couldn't turn down such an offer, as disquieting as it was to anticipate a night in such surroundings. Howarth didn't seem to be the slightest bit uncomfortable about the Duke's hospitality, and he assented for both of us, giving me a sly wink. The Duke threw his hands up in pleasure.

"So! I hope you find that my home impresses you. Nothing has changed in the castle from the lowest cellar to the highest tower, in well over five hundred years! At least... so I am reliably assured. It has been a tradition in my family for generations to allow the furnishings to change as only the years may decree. The Old Voivode loved his palace so much, because he had built it for his beautiful wife, and he felt that to hold on to her memory, he had to hold on to the place where they had been the happiest. Then, when he was no longer among the living, those who came after him ensured that his wishes were fulfilled, for as long as my family were to hold possession of our property. And who am I to change such a noble tradition? We are all children of what went before, we are all, in so many ways, the ones who lived long ago, but reborn."

Our evening meal was a bare ration of bread, cheese, olives and mead, placed by the man with the fez on a small wooden table that did not seem to belong there. The Duke engaged us in conversation for perhaps an hour or so, but I was later unable to recall anything that was discussed. He took very little from the food on the table, and ate it as if it was cardboard. Eventually he wished us goodnight, then the bearded man showed us the rooms where we were to sleep - tiny cells without windows, containing nothing but a nasty bed, a wooden chair, and a supply of candles. The man left while we weren't looking.

"Look, Howarth, this is frightful. You told me I'd enjoy this."

"Oh, stop moaning, Butler. I didn't say you'd enjoy it, I said you'd find it interesting! You can't fault me there old chap! I can see you never spent time on the Western Front. Keep your pecker up, and if you insist, we'll leave at first light."

I had brought nothing to read, so there was nothing to do but go to bed. After I blew out the candle, it seemed that in such a room I could hear nothing, and I could see nothing. I felt as if I was being smothered, and my unease kept me lying awake for some hours...

I dreamt I was lying on the ground, but couldn't get up. I was pinned down, like one of my butterflies. I tried to look around, but everything I needed to see was behind me. I was in a church, but there were bars, I was behind them. I sensed danger, and I was afraid. I groped to one side for my map of Romania. Genevieve was in there, but far away, she was giggling and had no idea I was here. I saw through the bars, I saw the Duke, who was staring at me. Then he told me that he could see into my heart, that he saw a pompous little man who had lived a cloistered life, but has been running from pain. He said he too understands the pain of the loss of one's great love. He said he wished me peace. Then he pointed to a vast cistern, containing many people, with looks of horror on their faces, who weren't moving. The Duke took Howarth by the throat and threw him in there as well. The pins that held me seemed to pierce me deeper, until I couldn't bear the pain. I struggled, but couldn't free myself, and I heard a distant pounding blow, again and again...

I was suddenly released from the nightmare. But the pounding noise I heard was not part of it - I was awake, although I couldn't see anything in the darkness. The noise came from far beneath me, and sounded as if some massive weight was being thrown against another, like a battering ram against a great door. The thumping kept going, without pause, for some time. But after a while I must have slept again.

The morning light barely found its way into the castle. I made my way to the hall in search of some type of breakfast. The Duke's man had prepared a small meal of greasy cocoa and a bread roll.

"Good morning," I said. "Is my friend awake?"

He looked at me with a blank face, but said nothing.

"Well, where's the Duke this morning?"

For the first time he spoke, in an ugly, guttural tone,

"The Voivode sleeps. The Voivode must sleep, it has always been so."

I didn't know if his accent had mauled the words beyond recognition or if he had spoken more eccentric riddles, so I ignored him. And yet I saw no more of the Duke. I waited for Howarth for several hours, but there was no sign of him. I wondered if he had already left, so I said my thanks and left the castle, then walked to the village.

At the inn, I asked the innkeeper if he had seen Howarth.

"No," he said. "What does he look like?"

"Don't you remember? We were here yesterday, in the afternoon."

The innkeeper gave another blank face.

"For goodness' sake, you must remember," I said. "We sat over there."

"Oh, yes," he said with a grin. "Now I remember - the three of you. You were talking to Janos and Leo."

"No, there was..."

Suddenly it occurred to me that something was wrong. Howarth would have waited for me - we had to return to our ship, we had to be there by late afternoon. The Duke's man and the innkeeper were both keeping something from me. I felt I had to get away from the village - if some dark violence had befallen Howarth, there was little I could do other than to tell the crew of the ship what had happened. If there was merely a misunderstanding, I would have to rely on Howarth to make his own way back to the ship. I had nothing to defend myself with. I left the inn, and beside the road I found a rock which I concealed as best I could, and calmly made my way to the train station. I wasn't accosted, in fact the villagers hardly noticed me, and my train was soon on its way. At no point was I approached by anyone.

When I arrived at the port, I saw the captain and some of his crew, smoking on the wharf. I told the captain what had happened. His reply was even more alarming.

"Who is Howarth?"

"What do you mean?" I exclaimed. "He and I have been travelling on the Hikmat since it left Istanbul. Is this some kind of joke?"

The captain looked at me for a minute. Then he turned to his shipmates, and they began to discuss something in their own language. One in particular, a swarthy man in a shabby pea coat, seemed to have a lot to say. Was there some conspiracy afoot? What could I do? I was now seemingly alone in a strange and threatening country, and my only alternative was to leave on a ship whose crew might also have criminal intent. And what were they expecting me to do? Why had only Howarth disappeared, and left me unharmed? Then, after a lengthy conversation, the captain turned to me.

"Mister Butler... I'm sorry, but I think that nothing can be done. Luca says that in the village you may have encountered a beast called a strigoi. To preserve their immortality, these monsters drink a man's essence - they drain away every thought the victim ever had, every emotion, every memory. As the beast drinks, the victim will fade from the thoughts of others, and if the strigoi is very old and powerful, it will drink so much that its victim ceases to have ever existed at all. Did your friend have any children?"

"Howarth? Yes, I think so..."

"Well then they're gone too," said the captain. "The monster fed well. You're lucky you didn't become a victim yourself. It is a terrible evil, but there is no way to know how much of this goes on. For all we know, a demon such as this may take a victim every night."

Something in the way these men spoke gave me the feeling that they believed what they were saying, and meant me no harm. So it seemed wisest to stay on the ship, and hope that in time the mystery might clear up. Then the man in the pea coat stepped closer to me, looked me in the eye for a few moments, and said thickly,

"I do not doubt what you have told us. But the man you knew as Howarth was the phantom of a man who never existed. I think that sometimes you see things that others cannot. Am I right? Think about it, Mister Butler. I am sure there have been other things in your past you could not understand."

April, 2010. Revised May, 2016. Painting: The Duke, oil on canvas (2011)

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