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It was in the summer of 1902 that I made my last visit to my boyhood home of Hannibal. Many years had passed since I had left the place, but although it had grown and filled out, it was nonetheless completely recognizable. My old home still stood on its corner, looking somewhat smaller than my memory had painted it.
There were a few folk abroad in the streets, for the twilight lingered late, trailing faint gold clouds above the hills to the west. But it was fast darkening by the river, and women's voices called the wandering children home. Watching them run, I felt my age very much, but this was a pain become familiar through its constancy. I put it aside and climbed into the carriage that had been sent to fetch me from the train depot.
I already knew that many of my childhood companions were long dead, but some of them survived yet. Mr. Garth's son John had married Helen Kercheval and though John was no longer alive, his widow was. She had invited me to a grand soiree at the big house south of town and it was to this house that I now traveled. John and I had been schoolmates in our childhood days, and Helen had been the prettiest girl in that school. On the occasion of this visit she was beautiful still. Age could never subtract anything from her beauty for it was a consequence of her good and decent character and her warm heart.
The central hallway of the house was as graciously proportioned as I remembered, with a typically Victorian high ceiling, ebulliently patterned, gold-winking wallpaper, and beautifully painted woodwork. Many paintings hung from the tall picture rail, and I could not help but notice them as I awaited my hostess. Several of these works of art were quite dramatic, done in what is commonly called the Impressionist style, in which the effects of light and atmosphere are of utmost importance.
One scene in particular drew my gaze most strongly. It pictured the interior of a nightclub, and in both composition and coloring it strongly called to mind the works of Toulouse-Lautrec. One could see the faces, pleased or bored or self-absorbed, of the club's habitués, but out of their multitude, two forms dominated. One was the figure of a dancer caught in a dramatic moment of her performance on the tiny stage. She was wrapped in some gauzy stuff which revealed much of her physique, and she was a magnificent figure of woman--tall, with an arresting, vivid expression and a cascading mane of wavy black hair. The other dominant figure seemed to be that of an artist--at least there was a paintbrush stuck rakishly behind his ear, and what could have been paint stains upon his coat--perhaps a self-portrait of the one who had made the painting? Black-haired as well, he leaned back in his chair, surveying the scene with an expression at once amused and jaded. Across the painted room their faces seemed to seek each other out, artist and dancer. Was there a story hidden in this painting? Or were all paintings so full of pulsing life and had I simply never quite noticed it?
Then my gaze locked onto the face of the artist, and I had the queerest sensation that somewhere I had seen that face before. Yet I was certain that I had never met him in my life. The tiny engraved brass plaque beneath the painting read "M. de Reynardine, 1895. La Danseuse Marliese Hasse." The dancer's name meant but little to me; I had heard of her certainly, as I had heard of her contemporary, Loie Fuller. But again I felt that sense of deja vu when I saw the name 'de Reynardine.'
As I stood pondering this minor enigma, my hostess came rustling into the foyer to greet me. It was time I put aside my private musings. As I had expected, Mrs. Garth had invited quite a number of friends to her gathering in consequence of my visit. By now I was accustomed to being presented as a literary lion whether or not I deserved it, and I was prepared to shine upon this occasion. I had discovered that although such audiences wanted very much for me to read aloud from one or another of my books, I could hardly do it. The stories simply did not read aloud. However if I laid the book aside and launched into the tale, it ceased to be obstructive and rolled from my lips as though borne by the great river. I could tell those stories--I could never read them aloud. So my performances became those of a story-teller. On this occasion as on many others, the fashionable guests forgot their self-absorption and their gossip and gathered around me for all the world like children enrapt in an elder's tale. They laughed where I intended they should, and absorbed the serious passages with becoming dignity, so I was content. I am a lazy person, so it really does not take much to please me.
I forget exactly what stories I told--I believe actually I spoke about our Florentine villa with the enormous foyer, and various other amusing experiences I had had while traveling in Europe. I may have told the story of the disappointed burglar as well, never mind that I came out looking quite foolish in it. But after I had offered these insights into my life, the conversation naturally turned to the experiences of others. I was pleased to listen, for one never knew when a choice tale, just the sort of story I most enjoyed hearing, might emerge.
But looking up when a late-arrived visitor entered the room, my earlier curiosity about the painting returned. He--for certainly it was the artist--stood there in the brilliance of the new electric lights, with Mrs. Garth beside him.
"I should like to present to you my very special guest," she said, commanding our attention. "Please give Monsieur Marcel de Reynardine your warmest welcome. Mr. Clemens, I know, has noticed one of Monsieur's paintings already. I commend it to all of you. He is the toast of Paris, and his name will shine brightly among those whose art is long remembered."
De Reynardine's sharp dark gaze swept across the assembled company and came to rest on me. Yes, this was the artist in the painting--and suddenly I realized why his name seemed familiar, though I could not imagine why I had thought I had seen him before. I had, while in England, come across a collection of old ballads which told the tale, in various lights, of a man who might be a rogue, a rake, or a fugitive from justice--a man called Reynardine.
The gentlemen moved to shake his hand. When I approached him, I saw that his black hair swept back from a broad pale forehead; then his gleaming dark gaze met mine. I did not know what to say to him, which was rather unusual for me. I took his hand, finding it cooler than my own and with a firm clasp that spoke of quiet confidence.
"I am pleased to meet you," I finally said. "I like that painting Helen has in the hallway. I had the strangest sense upon viewing it that I had seen you, at least, sometime in the past."
The shapely lips beneath the black mustache smiled a little, and opened. His voice was like nothing I had ever heard. Rich, deep, soothing yet thrilling--these words no more describe the sound of it than the word 'blue' describes the summer sky at dusk. A beautiful voice it was, yet with something in it that stroked my nerves to a tingling pitch of awareness such as I had never felt before.
"Perhaps it was in a dream," he suggested. "Often I find that when I wake, my dream, before it fades, seems more real than the world to which I have awakened. And may I say that I have read everything you have written? I feel almost that I know you, that we have met some time or other, so long have I imbibed the tales you spin."
We were seated in the dining room soon. Food and wine were plentiful, beautifully served, and as enjoyable as any I ever tasted. Lively conversation flowed around me.
The subject turned to Spiritualism, which greatly interested me though I had no desire to dabble in it. I can think of no unkinder treatment of the dead than to compel their attention to the world they have left behind. I should not dream of calling any of my lost friends or loved ones back to answer some tom-fool question or other. No doubt they have better things to do with their time. Surely those spirits who actually answer one's call are merely hanging about because they lack any more fruitful employment at that moment, and most likely they make up all the answers to one's questions.
From Spiritualism they then got onto their own various experiences of what one might call the Supernatural. Here again I listened more than I spoke, although in this I had some small and uneasy experience. No doubt you recall my tale of my brother Henry's death and of how I saw it in a dream before it came to pass. I have never had any good explanation given me for how this came about and do not think I am likely to get one. It was a frightening experience and not something I would like to repeat. Although, up till now, despite my dream of Henry, I should have said I did not much believe in anything supernatural, at least, not so long as the sun was shining, after tonight I would no longer possess the relative comfort of this disbelief.
Presently another guest, a young lady from London, began to talk of the novel Dracula, which had caused such a stir upon its release in England some years earlier. Of course, I had met Stoker in London, and we had had some fine and far-ranging talks, but although I was more or less familiar with the subject matter in his book (he had given me a copy of it, and I had begun to cut its pages), I had never finished reading it.
The discussion waxed passionate over the creature called the Vampire, with some of the guests maintaining that such beings did not and could not exist, and others just as hotly insisting that they could. Someone remarked that there were historical records of apparent vampiric attacks (other than those of politicians upon their gullible constituencies), and that there were countries where such creatures were known to exist even today.
I filled in the gaps left by my incomplete reading of Stoker's tale, learning that the Vampire is one who has somehow cheated Death and who survives by taking the blood of human beings as his sole sustenance. My facile wit suggested that this would constitute a rather meager diet, as well as contributing to the apparently uncivil personality of the Vampire. Considered in a personal light, I have never been much of a hunter, so the notion of having to struggle for every meal did not appeal to me. I expect I would go hungry rather more frequently than not. Perhaps lazy people do not last very long as Vampires.
De Reynardine's face was quite a study as he listened to this conversation. It is true, as I have stated before, that in general I cannot abide the French, a people who produce the most marvelous soaps on this earth, but apparently consider themselves so naturally sweet-smelling that they need not employ these products themselves. But in de Reynardine's bearing and his manners he was a credit to his own or any other country, and I found a great pleasure in watching him. His expression was always vivid and mobile, and his dark eyes full of lively intelligence. His dress was handsome and artistically stylish, but far from appearing a coxcomb, he seemed hardly aware of the admiring glances he got. His consciousness was all for the guests. Indeed he seemed completely drawn in by the discussion that raged all around him, and he did not seem to notice my considerable scrutiny.
The young lady who had originally mentioned the novel was one of those who now championed the cause of belief in its supernatural subject.
"I quite accept the premise," she insisted, "though you may doubt all you like. Why should there not be Vampires? There are so many things we don't understand yet. Science is learning new things every day, but it can't explain ghosts, nor dreams, nor God, so why should we be so certain that there are no Vampires simply because nobody has yet proved or disproved their existence?"
De Reynardine smiled at this remark--a smile which did not show his teeth--and spoke in response. "Mademoiselle, that is an intelligent head you carry upon your shoulders, if you will pardon a somewhat too familiar remark. Science is all very well, but in these matters I think that it too is at a loss. There are some things which it cannot discern because it has not the sufficient understanding, and I think it never shall. Just consider! If such a thing as the Vampire exists, why should he trouble himself to submit to mankind's curiosity? His very safety and survival relies upon his secrecy, for his weaknesses are precisely those things in which humanity is most powerful. I think it likely that, search as it might, Science will never succeed in capturing the Vampire, for the Vampire is aware of the chase and will never let himself be taken."
All eyes turned to him during this speech, for his delivery was uncommonly intense. Was I the only listener who perceived that despite de Reynardine's vigorous speech he did not seem ever to draw a deep breath?
"But in the book the Vampire is taken," argued the young lady to whom he had addressed his remarks. "And it is the scientist who does as much as any to track him down."
"Ah, yes," replied the Frenchman, not at all ruffled by this challenge. "The remarkable Professor Van Helsing. I do not think there are many such as him outside of a story. And as for the Vampire--I do not know where Mr. Stoker found him, for he was a most foolish creature."
"What would you have done?" I heard myself asking, rather to my own astonishment. "Had you been Dracula, I mean."
De Reynardine turned that brilliant and yet somehow reserved smile full upon me. It had the strangest effect, so that even now I am not at all certain just what happened. I felt that time stood frozen for an instant. The chatter all about me faded and it was as if no-one else was present save this man and me. All the while those big dark eyes were meeting mine with a keen and knowing gaze with something of laughter in it. I felt as if there were no place in my mind which he could not see, and I looked away first. Despite my career as a public person I am not accustomed to being quizzed so intently.
Then he laughed, and the spell seemed broken. "What would I have done?" he chuckled. "Why, had I been Dracula, I would have made certain that I did nothing to endanger myself. There are many who would welcome the Vampire's embrace; why did he pursue Mina, who showed herself uninterested?"
Now this was a strange speech, and yet the other guests did not seem to feel it. What did he mean--that some would welcome the Vampire's embrace? I felt inclined to ask him to elucidate upon this.
But the young lady who had introduced the subject tossed her head coquettishly. "I don't think very many people would care to meet Dracula," she said. "He does not sound pleasant, and I would not like to be made into another Vampire as that poor Lucy was. What a beastly experience."
I wanted very much to hear de Reynardine's reaction to this, but just then the dessert course was served, and the matter was forgotten in half-a-dozen other simultaneous conversations. I do not think that anyone besides me heard the odd response de Reynardine gave to the young lady's last remark.
"Beastly?" I heard him distinctly murmur, quite to himself. He was still smiling. "It need not be so."
That was all, and yet it was an odd remark. I thought back to the words of the ancient ballad, the tale of the maid who followed Bold Reynardine across the mountains, Reynardine whose teeth shone so brightly. Was it merely a coincidence that this famous artist, this flamboyant Frenchman, bore the rogue's name, that he cloaked his brilliance in mystery that escaped casual detection? Were such things coincidences at all?
I noticed that de Reynardine, while neither eating nor drinking, carried on a most vivacious discussion with his neighbors to either side. That I was unable to overhear anything of significance about his abstinence did not prevent me forming various unsatisfactory conjectures as to why the gentleman did not partake of the excellent meal provided us. Of course he might have had a perfectly reasonable excuse, but my imagination preferred to conjure other possibilities.
After coffee had been served, the guests scattered in small groups to pursue games or smoking or to stroll about the lawn while admiring the wonderful display of fireflies. It is surprising that while in most places these remarkable little creatures content themselves with hovering fairly close to the ground, here they rise up to illuminate the very trees with their display. I found a congenial place on the broad front verandah and lighting a fine cigar, I sat down to enjoy it while I put my thoughts and impressions in some kind of order. I hoped that de Reynardine might seek me out, for by now my curiosity was well and truly aroused. Sure enough, as if I had called him, he soon found me. Pulling up another of the plentiful wicker chairs, he seemed prepared, even eager, to continue our interrupted conversation.
"I am most proud to make your acquaintance," said he, offering me his hand once more. His clasp was firm and dry, his fingers pleasantly cool in the warm evening. "A reader cannot help but imagine the marvelous qualities which must be possessed by the author of one's favorite books, but one so often is disappointed when the truth is revealed."
"I should be sorry if I had disappointed you," I said, politely enough. I even meant it, in this case.
"No, no," he chuckled. "You mistake my meaning, Mr. Clemens. This time I find that, far from being disappointed, I am quite elevated. Your expression, your words, all inform me of the man behind the tale. I am thoroughly honored. You see, I have long awaited this opportunity. Was it not a pity that our earlier discussion was cut short?"
I was inclined to agree. "I confess that I was most curious about it," I said. "I could not make out what you meant when you said that the attentions of the Vampire need not be unpleasant to the object of his interest. I am, perhaps, at some disadvantage, for I have not read Mr. Stoker's novel in its entirety."
De Reynardine's reply was a shout of laughter. "I should not concern myself overly with that omission," he said then. "Mr. Stoker is a hack. Furthermore he has got many of his facts wrong."
"Facts?" I asked. I was not about to debate a fellow author's merit with de Reynardine. "What in tarnation do you mean? I understood that it was a work of pure fiction."
Those keen dark eyes met mine again, and I felt as though I had been taken with a slight dizziness. "No more fiction," he said in a soft voice, "than the ballad of Bold Reynardine! Besides, you must know as well as I do, Mr. Clemens, that oftentimes even in the most farfetched of fiction there resides a core of truth."
Thinking of some of my own fiction I could not help but agree with him, but this realization was somewhat disturbing in the light of our subject matter. I was conscious that I was gripping the arms of my chair more tightly than was my wont, and in fact was developing a considerable case of the fantods. I noted that my hand trembled as I laid my cigar in an ashtray, and that speech seemed somewhat difficult when I attempted to reply.
"You are saying, then, that the ballad was written about you? And that there are Vampires, but that Mr. Stoker erred in some particulars in his description of them?"
De Reynardine smiled at me as if I had said something quite clever. "The ballad may indeed refer to me," he said thoughtfully, "at least some of the variants. There are still older tales which certainly do concern a Reynardine, but even I was not alive when they were current. I believe that our family name is quite an ancient one, so in all likelihood the tales concern the activities of one of my forebears. As to your second question, I am fairly certain that Mr. Stoker never met a Vampire, so it is altogether unlikely that he could be correct in his assumptions."
He said no more on that subject, but sat there in the twilight, smiling his mysterious smile at me. A firefly landed on his hand; he lifted that hand and gazed closely at the creature. Then he chuckled a little, quite softly, and the firefly once more took to the air, shining its cold yellow-green light. I smiled too, at this display of whimsical behavior. Surely no man could be dangerous who was so kind to mere insects.
But what sort of a man was de Reynardine? And how old was he? How could the ballad refer to him? I did not seem able to relax, not with thoughts like these. My host, however, appeared not to notice my restlessness.
"In Japan," de Reynardine went on, as if he were continuing some other thought, "the people believe that fireflies may be human souls which have taken the insect form. As they harm no one, and are charming little creatures, they are much beloved. Are you aware that your Mr. Hearn has retold such tales in a wonderful way?"
I knew to whom he referred, but would not be distracted into a discussion of Hearn. "Human souls? Do you mean to say ghosts?"
"Oh, not necessarily," was his reply. "A person might become a firefly in a dream, and will dream of flying. There are many such tales in the folklore of that country."
"So these little miracles of light could be someone's spirit, whether alive and dreaming, or dead and buried?" I looked at the teeming lights among the oaks and shivered a little. I did not much like the idea of all those souls flying about, watching us yet unable to speak.
De Reynardine nodded, and hitched his chair a little closer to mine as if he had a secret to impart. No other guests were nearby, and even the multitudinous noises of the summer evening seemed subdued. My senses pricked up as if I had heard a far distant voice call my name, and that odd dizziness made itself felt once more. I thought that I saw something in his face--I cannot tell you what it was--that silenced my questions yet spurred my vague uneasiness all the more.
"Not only the dreaming and the dead," he said very quietly, "they might be the spirits of those neither dead nor living."
"I was good at riddles in my childhood," I said, "but I confess you have got me stumped. What man is neither dead nor alive?"
His eyes lighted again with that fervor I had seen during the earlier discussion during supper. "No man at all," he said. "I speak of the Vampire, who has bested natural death."
And then, laughing, he simply vanished. Where he had been was a glittering shadow, like a cloud, made up of particles which resolved into numerous blinking fireflies. I stared, thoroughly astonished, obscurely frightened, and unable to believe my senses.
Perhaps no more than ten seconds passed, during which time I thought nothing at all, being too startled to form any coherent ideas.
De Reynardine reappeared then, seated exactly where he had been. His handsome face glowed as if illuminated from within, and his laughter seemed to shake me out of my dreamy state. I thought for a moment I had actually fallen asleep, so peculiar did I feel. I could not for a moment credit what I had seen. Surely I had dreamed it. But the look on de Reynardine's face did not permit me the comfort of that explanation.
"I have shocked you, and I am sorry," he said, his good humor still apparent. Once again I relaxed somewhat. Perhaps he was a magician after all--a man for whom such illusions were a science to be mastered, and nothing more. My friend Barnum was one such. But I felt a little foolish, and consequently a bit angry.
"You damn well surprised me, at any rate," I managed, barely able to remember my manners. I tended to get profane easily without the gentling influence my family generally exerted upon me. "What in hell did you just do? And how did you do it?"
"First things first," he said good-naturedly. "I changed my visible form. But I cannot tell you precisely how I do it."
I could find no words at first with which to reply to this statement. What had he tried to show me? First he had asserted that the Vampire stood in between the living and the dead. He had then suggested that the soul of a dreamer, a dead man, or of a Vampire might take the outward form of a firefly. And then he had vanished into a cloud of fireflies! He certainly did not seem to be sleepwalking, so I did not believe he was dreaming, nor did I think that I was, although I have no means of proving it. He hardly appeared to be deceased in the ordinary way of things. Was he therefore telling me that he was a Vampire? And if he were, what could a Vampire want with me? Certainly I was too old to make a good meal for him!
De Reynardine's genial smile deepened, and he regarded me with real affection.
"Wiser and wiser," he said, still in that quiet tone. "But do not fear me just yet, Mr. Clemens. You are close to the truth, but not yet on the mark."
"Well, I didn't know I was aiming at any thing in particular," I managed to reply. "But you--you have certainly mystified me, however it was done. I did not come here tonight expecting to be conjured!"
"We never do know," he said, "how our adventures will end, do we? Like the characters in your stories! If they knew what awaited them, would they continue? Of course they would. It is the nature of the human species to continue, and to have always the hope. So! Now, to your question about what you have seen me do; this form you see is but the mortal body I have always worn. You have seen me do what I almost never do before a mortal--that is, change my shape. But from you I would keep no secrets."
I believe I was still too flabbergasted to form any coherent response. Those of you who consider me a man with a ready word will understand how I felt, faced with this smiling enigma. I could not for a moment believe what I felt he was telling me, but my mind steadfastly refused to offer any less startling conclusions. I felt for the first time that I was in some danger.
Unbidden, my mind gave me a half-forgotten image of a night long ago when I, still a boy, had discovered that the body of a dead man was sharing a room in which I had fancied myself hidden and alone. I remembered how that boy had felt, and considered that I was feeling pretty nearly the same way now--about ready to bolt! Furthermore, I am certain that my face revealed all of this and more to the man--the Vampire! For that was undoubtedly what he was telling me, if not in so many words. Dead men, fireflies, whirling spirits--I was disoriented--perhaps I was truly ill. Was nobody else nearby? Why did no one else come to share this bizarre conversation?
I wanted to muster the usually keen bayonet of my wit and consciousness--to exert some control over the moment--but I could do nothing but sit and gape at de Reynardine. Anger seemed pointless now. I was an old man faced with a wholly unfamiliar situation, and he, damn him, was right. There was nothing I could do except continue and see where events led me. As to hope, I am not certain that I had much of it by this time. It was in my mind that I might see my two children, who had preceded me in death, before I had expected to do so.
"I am able to read your thoughts," he said, "as you already have guessed. But it would be preferable to hear them spoken. I consider it impolite to intrude into another's mind without a very good reason."
Finally I mustered what sense I still had left to me, and spoke. "I reckon there's not much I could hide from you, if you can read my thoughts. You must know that I do not as a rule believe such tales as you have told me--not by day, at least. But it is not daylight now, and you have pretty well frightened me. And if you are truly a Vampire, I suppose it is no good my telling you that I am not at all interested in dying yet?"
He threw his head back and laughed again in a wholehearted and thoroughly delightful manner. But he was not laughing at my discomfort--of this I was as certain as if he had told me so. I will say this: I have never met nor heard of any other supernatural manifestation that possessed such a good nature. De Reynardine appeared to find more joy in his existence than many a mortal who believes he lives his life to the fullest. If this happy creature before me was in truth a Vampire, then clearly mankind does not know one true thing about this race which shares the earth with us.
Yet I was on guard, though I knew not precisely why. I have often said that I arrived on earth with Halley's Comet and intend to leave with it--and as that bright visitor's arrival was still in the future, I felt I had nothing to fear just yet. Nonetheless, my nerves were tightly strung and would not be otherwise.
When I had gotten my breath back, and a bit of my composure, I returned his look with my own. "Why did you not inform Mr. Stoker of his grievous errors," I asked, "if he was so greatly in the wrong?"
De Reynardine's smile faded and I caught a glimpse of another side of him altogether. "It would have served no purpose," he replied. "Humanity believes what it will, and the truth only serves to enrage it further. Take what you will from a mortal, all save his illusions. Destroy those, and you have earned a dire enemy. Humans believe that if we exist, we necessarily must be monstrous. I cannot say that we are all otherwise; we are like the mortal race from whence we sprang in that regard, in that some of us are relatively benign while others are...otherwise."
Well, he was correct in his assessment of mortals!
"Then there are others of your kind? Do you not get along with each other any better than we do? And of which sort are you?"
De Reynardine's volatile expression grew even sadder. I thought I had never seen quite such a sorrow on any mortal face, though the laughter still lurked in his dark eyes. "Yes, there are others. And no, we do not all get along with each other, as you put it. Did I not tell you that you were wise, and that I had longed to meet you? We are not permitted in the normal way of things to reveal our true natures to mankind. Yet I have torn the mask of secrecy from my face so that you can see me as I am, or at least as I can be perceived by a mortal. Am I a monster to you? Do I inspire hatred, or disgust, or fear?"
"I told you that you had unnerved me," I said drily, "As for making me hate you or be disgusted by you, I have met living men, representatives of my own government, who far exceeded you in the inspiration of such negative emotions, even when they professed to be telling me a great truth. Also, I would much rather converse with an honest devil than a sanctimonious saint!
"But despite what you have been telling me, and my own peculiar feelings, I can see nothing unpleasant in your manner, nor any particular difference between us, save that you do not seem to breathe as I do, nor did I not see you sup with the rest of us. And there is the matter of your ability to vanish as you please. Now, that is a talent I would not mind having known sometimes. Yet I cannot wholly be at ease with you, for from what little I have learned of your kind, it seems to me most likely that you did not share our meal tonight because you intended to partake of your own later, and in a different manner than we did."
Once again he smilingly sidestepped my near-accusation. "My ability to vanish, as you put it, can be useful," he admitted, "but I do it extremely rarely. It takes a great deal of energy. Most of my kind cannot do it at all; it is an exceedingly uncommon skill."
"Why did you show it to me?" I asked.
"So that you might believe me."
Well, I was not certain just what I was to believe. De Reynardine spoke as if telling the entire truth, but as I said, I have known men who could not have made me believe my own name although they were by and large well-respected individuals.
I sat there looking at him in the near-darkness, while the fireflies described broken arcs of light around us. My nerves thrummed as if a starving wolf lurked nearby. Had he hypnotized me? It might be, but I had proved myself incapable of that many years ago and I think de Reynardine might have known it. And while my mind whispered to me to remain on my guard against a man who did not appear to eat or to breathe, who could vanish before my eyes, a man who spoke of being no man at all, I could not deny either a strange sympathy, or fascination. Here was a being of whom the broadside ballad had whispered a hundred years ago; of whose family, perhaps, more ancient tales had spoken in similar terms. Reynardine, the bold, the sly; Reynardine. The fox.
How could I not be fascinated, despite the danger?
"It is difficult to accept, I know," he said, watching me.
"You are right. And I wonder why you chose me to be the recipient of this secret which you are apparently expected to preserve. Is it because I will never have the chance to tell anybody else about it?"
He leaned forward, and all of his earlier intensity was back in his gaze. Once again I felt the pulling his eyes exerted upon me. His words came low but distinct. There was no possibility that I misheard them. "That may be up to you, Mr. Clemens."
Simply stated, I disliked the sound of that. I stood up, knocking my nearly-forgotten cigar from its tray, and did not even notice how I held my coat close about my throat. "That sounds remarkably like a threat, de Reynardine, and I do not believe that a guest threatens another guest. I do not engage in duels, or I would call you out for this. And I tell you that if you think to trap or hoodwink me in some way, you had better command all the resources you have, for I will not give in to you easily, nor without the severest struggle which it is in my power to achieve."
"Yet even now," he said, "even now you are nearly, but not quite, as unnerved as you are curious--not the other way around, Mr. Clemens."
He was right, of course, damn him. I stood there, wondering why I had not a word with which to reply.
De Reynardine too rose to his feet. "I am sorry that you believe I meant to threaten you. It is simply that I do not know what words to use. Perhaps we may speak more later?"
I nodded as if I could not help it, and stood looking at him as if I could not look away. It was in my mind that even now I might simply depart this place, find my way back to safety. Yet this would be rude to our hostess, with whom I had not had much conversation yet. Besides, I had never run from an adventure before, not if I could help it.
I rose and made my way back to the front door, looking back once. My host appeared a dark figure against the darkness, and all I could see of him was his smile. His teeth gleamed in the fitful lights of the fireflies, which did not help my composure. I thought about the words of the damned ballad. I thought about the sustenance the Vampire is said to require. To put it simply, I was not in expectations of a quiet night.
I followed the same quiet servant up a lovely long curving staircase to a room on the north side of the hall and commanding a view of the front lawns and the great oaks. Noting that my baggage had already been brought in, and the bed turned down in readiness for me, I prepared for rest, but then sat up in the chair beside the east window. I was not ready for sleep though I was certainly tired. My mind was whirling and I was in no position to slow it down. I wanted to think about what I had seen, and about this oddest of all odd conversations I had ever had. I have met a good many unusual people in my life, but none surpassed this de Reynardine. Whether he was a charlatan, or something which existed, so far as I knew, only in fiction, or something else out of legend and history, he was in any event a most interesting character. And being who I am, I was not half so disturbed by him when he was not present.
I must have sat for quite some time, calming myself with such thoughts, for gradually I realized that the house had quieted, and that no guests remained out on the lawn. The walls of the house were thick enough that I heard no voices in the room next to mine, but occasional steps in the hall told me that others were about. I wondered what sort of conversations our host had had with them, and whether we all faced a similar fate, or whether we were being individually tested for suitability. I wondered, not without some humor, what criteria a Vampire might use to select a meal.
It was hardly shy of 2:00 a.m. when a soft knock startled me out of my reverie. I was smoking another cigar, still ensconced in my chair, and had been writing some notes on my evening so far, and trying not to give in to sleep. I had a pretty good idea who was knocking, and despite my increasing doubts of my own good sense, I was of a mind to continue the discussion once more. Yet I paused with my hand on the doorknob. Some shred of the lore I had heard at supper had surfaced in my thoughts: the notion that the Vampire can only enter a place into which he has been invited. If de Reynardine truly was of the Undead, and of a sinister bent, perhaps it was hardly wise of me to bid him enter this room. But I never have been credited with good sense.
I opened the door, my hand seeming to move on the crystal doorknob of its own volition. There stood de Reynardine, now clad, rather startlingly, in a dressing gown far more spectacular than my own. I was surprised at myself even as I welcomed him quietly in. My mother had always insisted that I would never be drowned, nor killed by a runaway horse, nor anything of the kind, because I was born to be hanged. I do not believe I shall be hanged, no matter what I have written about various and sundry personages, but it is true that I have often trusted my luck and it has not led me much astray. That this particular adventure might lead to a grave error--but no. I dared not think this way with this creature standing before me.
His eyes seemed to grow larger as I looked at him, and then I could not breathe for just a moment, but it was a moment that lasted an interminable time. I wondered dimly if I were having a heart attack--if I were dying. I struggled for breath and for clarity.
When my vision cleared, and my lungs could expand once more, I realized that all my fears had been confirmed. My host was gripping my shoulders in the strongest grasp I have ever known, and his face, pale and shining, was inches from mine. Beneath the luxurious mustache his lips parted, and I glimpsed the teeth that the ballad had immortalized. Why, they really do shine, I thought.
I have said that I am not much of a fighter, but that depends on the weapons being used. I cannot shoot a gun and be certain of hitting anything. I am not skilled in the Oriental arts of battle. But if I could distract or stall this Vampire--if such he was--and keep him talking, perhaps I had a chance to save myself. I might refuse a duel with weapons, but in the arena of language, as in no other, we might be a match for one another.
"Mr. Clemens, you must listen to me," he said softly.
"I have done so earlier this evening," I said through clenched teeth. "You are not as intelligent as I thought."
Light danced in his black eyes, distracting me.
"Why do you say so?" he whispered almost lovingly.
"It is a stupid fox who presents himself to the hunter."
The broad shoulders shook in silent mirth. "Ah, I knew I had chosen wisely. Of all those whom I have met here tonight, Mr. Clemens, you alone have surpassed my expectations. The others--ah, they are but sheep, whom one can lead unresisting to slaughter, and none of them would see it coming. They do not believe--they would not, they cannot, even those who profess to believe. So they walk blindly into my domain."
"I suppose I ought to be glad," I snarled, trying unsuccessfully to loosen his grip upon me, "to have been found the most inviting of this selection of still-living entrees. You will forgive me if I do not show more appreciation of the fact."
"You cannot appreciate a fact until you know its true face," he said quite seriously. "You have not yet seen mine."
"I am not at all certain that I wish to," I said.
Desperately I cast around for some means of besting this charming rogue. Was there anything in my entire life which, offered up, might divert him, might even please him so well that my life would no longer be forfeit? His hands upon my shoulders were dreadfully strong.
"I do not think you understand me," he said.
"How do you mean?"
He looked at me; held my gaze with his own, then nodded slowly as if coming to some conclusion.
"I see what it is," he said gently. "You think I have been toying with you, as the cat toys with its prey."
"And have you not?" I asked. "You have your hands upon me, sir, and I do not feel quite safe."
"Ah, safety is one of humanity's illusions," he remarked. "Surely you know that. But I have misled you, and I did not precisely intend to do so. It is just that I cannot afford to be open too soon. You see...it is not death precisely that I would offer you."
A chuckle escaped me before I could quell it, and I began to see some absurdity in my situation. "What else would you call it then, sir? Or do you drink but a glassful, savoring your victim's bouquet as it were, and leave the rest for another time?"
His riotous laughter again startled me.
"Mr. Clemens, you are priceless. Your wisdom and wit have enchanted me, and believe me, sir, I am not so easily charmed. Not one of my other guests has won from me such an accolade. Will you now listen, without fear, to what I propose?"
"Gladly," I said, trying for calmness, "provided you can manage to let go of me long enough for me to breathe. It is an enjoyable activity, and one I should like to continue for as long as possible."
"You will not leave without hearing me out?" he asked. I shook my head. Even now, my curiosity nagged at me!
Somewhat reluctantly he released me and stepped back. I could not quite make out his expression. Something of what I should call hunger there was, a kind of keenness, but that was overlaid with something very much like hope.
I took to my chair once more. He would have to pry me out of it next time!
He sat upon my bedside and regarded me with that look whose mingled emotions I can barely name. To say that it was a passionate gaze but cheapens it; if passion there was, it was age-old and life-long, and found its object in places unlike those where humankind finds its own.
Than the magical voice spoke again, and my weary heart rose at its sound. But its words astonished me more than anything else had done so far during this evening.
"I chose you," said de Reynardine, "because of all the men I have met in my life, you are the one with whom I would share my immortality."
Now it was my turn to laugh, for immortality is the destiny of those who have been exceedingly good in their earthly lives. I do not think anybody who knows me would place me in that category, nor would I have the brazen confidence to do so myself. Perhaps it was rude of me to laugh, but I was unable to stop it, because I was by now completely unnerved. Despite de Reynardine's undeniable appeal and apparent good nature, I had no desire to share his or anybody else's immortality, at any rate not while I was still alive and kicking.
Besides, I have my own notions of immortality, and I think in my modest way that my books will provide me with a sufficient quantity of that commodity. And perhaps, despite his peculiarities which I have noted, including his startling strength and his apparent ability to vanish, or at any rate move so quickly that I never saw it, I still did not sufficiently believe his explanation of himself. I can only plead stupidity as my excuse; certainly I had not taken nearly enough wine at supper to make me so stubbornly resistant to the truth.
De Reynardine sat opposite me now, watching me without quite seeming to do so. "What do you think of immortality?" he asked presently. "There is no hurry, of course, but I should like to know what you feel about it."
"I confess," I said, "that I cannot organize my thoughts sufficiently to come to any clear understanding. You are offering me a way to defeat Death, is that correct?"
He nodded in a matter-of-fact way, as though we were discussing travel arrangements or the like, and this, more than anything else, served to finally begin to convince me that his astonishing claim was no more than fact. "Vampire-kind can die, but not so easily as mankind, and we do not suffer any natural death. It comes to me that not for many, many years will the world see your equal, should you pass the way of all mortals. Do you not think that the world needs you still?"
If this was flattery, de Reynardine's face did not give him away. He was serious now, his laughter banked, his mobile face set in rather stern lines. He looked older, and weary. I wondered, not at all facetiously now, if he were hungry. I did not think I wanted to supply him with dinner, yet my sympathies were moved as he spoke. Vampire or madman, was he right? Was there an abiding place in the world for one who saw with my vision, spoke with my voice? I liked the sound of that, yet I could not quite believe it. Why should I outlive my time when none of my generation would do so? Why should my government listen any more closely to me than it had done thus far? What could I accomplish with more years except to grow older in my soul if in no other manner, and to become less and less content with my accomplishments and myself? I did not much like what the world was coming to as it was; how much more should I dislike it in twenty or thirty years when unimaginable changes had erased the scenes and sense of my lifetime?
I thought of de Reynardine's apparent happiness, I thought of his equally apparent sorrow. I wondered if he had made the choice for immortality of his own will or if he had been put under duress. Then I thought of the ballad. I thought of all this, and yet what emerged from my mouth was something else entirely.
"If I must outlive all of those whom I love, I would not want such immortality."
de Reynardine nodded slowly. "I understand you well. That is why... but no, that is another story and a longer one than I have time to tell." He looked grimmer than he had all evening, and somehow older. His high cheekbones seemed to jut out from his face more sharply than they had earlier.
"I cannot pretend that I expected any other response but this one, Mr. Clemens. My disappointment, you understand, cannot be helped, but never would I give the gift to one who was unwilling."
"A gift, is it? That, then, is one of the facts which Mr. Stoker got wrong?" I could not help but ask.
De Reynardine's laughter was soft now yet no less full. "Indeed he did. This is no horror to be thrust onto the weak or the frightened. It takes all one's strength to master Death, and be mastered in turn by the difficulties of an entirely different sort of existence in which one can never be completely at home with humankind again. It has its pleasures, its glories, and I would never trade it. I have thoroughly enjoyed my sojourn in the world, though I have, as you say, outlived my own time. But I have a task yet to do, and until it is complete I am not at liberty to consider ending my years."
This statement served to calm me again. It was not, to my thinking, the opinion of a creature who meant to dine upon me or to force upon me his unimaginable gift of prolonged existence, despite that fierce embrace of his. He sounded altogether weary, and thus as mortal as myself. I felt my sympathy for him arise once again.
"Perhaps," I mused, "perhaps I have fulfilled the task that was set me, and therefore I do not crave more time. I have lived a wonderful life, a life rich in adventure and experience and love, which I would not trade for any gifts you could offer me. I am sorry, for I am sure that you are offering me still greater adventures and mysteries--but I am not that greedy. I cannot accept the gift."
De Reynardine leaned forward and embraced me again, gently this time, as the French do. So close to him, seeing the gleam of his eye once more, feeling the great strength of his hands, I feared for an instant that he meant yet to make me his victim or his companion despite my refusal. But he seemed to know my thoughts and merely kissed me on both cheeks and let me go. He rose to his feet in one graceful, fluid motion and then held his hand to me in the American fashion. I rose too, sensing with an indescribable mixture of relief and regret that our interview was at an end.
"Will I ever meet you again?" I asked. "I am sorry that we have had so brief a visit, and there are many questions I should like to ask you. Perhaps now you would answer them, were there time."
"I do not know if we shall meet again," he said. "My time is not always my own. Even an immortal answers to others on occasion, you see. Ah, Mr. Clemens, never shall I forget this meeting. I will carry away with me precious memories of you. And I cannot blame you for your decision; it is what I expected of you."
This made me curious all over again. "How could you be so certain I would refuse?"
His delightful, subtle smile brightened his face. "Why, it is something you yourself said, though I cannot recall where I read it. It was one of the things that attracted me to you."
I considered what I might have said on the subject of immortality but came up empty-handed. "You have the advantage of me, Mr. de Reynardine, for I have not the slightest idea what I might have said."
He stood there at the door to my room, and his smile had something of both sadness and something of affection in it. He quoted my own words back to me, lifted his hand in farewell, and more swiftly than I can write it, he had slipped away out of my sight. I did not hear his feet crossing the hallway, nor hear his door gently opening and closing. I stood where he had left me, rocking a little on my feet, hearing his deep and resonant voice repeating my own words back to me. How strange that such words should have called a Vampire to my side, yet told him better than anything else that I could never accept his gift of eternal life.
"Live," he had said. "Live so that when you die, even the undertaker is sorry."
* * *
The next day I was on my way once again. I have never returned to Hannibal. That was my final visit to the place which had meant childhood, secrets, and magic to me. Nor have I ever seen nor heard of de Reynardine from that night to this. Now that I have outlived nearly all of my family, I can see the wisdom of my decision that night. I have fulfilled my task, and I am of no mind to struggle when my time comes.
I do sometimes wish, however, that he had come to visit me again. He was a mystery, and I have never had time to explore the mysteries which always lay just beyond the laughter and the troubles of my everyday existence. If there is any immortality awaiting me, I hope that I shall one day meet de Reynardine again, and ask him all the questions for which there was no time. I no longer would fear him--I am past fear now.
And now that I am ready to leave this world behind, I like to think that de Reynardine is out there somewhere still, laughing his great robust laugh, illuminating our disbelieving world like a cloud of fireflies.