Krumau an der Moldau, 1684
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?
Edgar Allan Poe
I was seven years old when I saw Jaroslav Černy hanged. I feel the pressure of Master Gottwald’s fingers on my shoulders still. Did he think I was going to run away? We were standing with the entire household on the bridge over the bear pit, looking up at the window in the clock tower. Even at that distance we could clearly hear Jaroslav’s screamed words: ‘I am innocent!’ The casement creaked open, and in a flurry of movement a bundle was pushed out. Jaroslav’s final shriek was cut in half and he swung, stiff and straight as a spindle, his heels neatly together.
Later that day I persuaded my tutor to take me up to that circular room. It was barely used: the von Schwarzenbergs are not really tyrants, but my father could not accept a trusted treasurer stealing from him, and an example had had to be made. Evidence of that last scuffle was clearly marked in the thick dust on the bare boards. I ran to the window, and my childish fingers on the hemp knotted firmly around the mullion, I leaned over. Master Gottwald cried out and held on to me, but I grasped the sill and would not be pulled in. Looking down, I could see the top of Jaroslav’s head. ‘He’s still alive!’ I shouted. He was not, of course. What I’d thought was his tousled black hair resolved itself into crow feathers. Two of the birds jabbed at the head, then one pulled back its beak and I saw a long bloody skein tugged from Jaroslav’s eye-socket before I vomited helplessly down into the bearpit.
Master Gottwald carried me, limp and sniffling, all the way down the servant’s stair. He and Barbora the cook exchanged glances, and without a word being said, she gave me a clear soup to drink, and then parsley to sweeten my breath. I was put to bed after that, and so did not witness the rope being cut that evening and Jaroslav falling to where Gretchen the bear waited.
Less than a week later proof of poor Jaroslav’s innocence did come to light, and the three true culprits were sentenced, only honour demanded that the loyal servant, or rather what was left of him, should be given a proper burial, so all three were lowered into the bear pit, weeping with fear, with a sack to gather the fragments. Only two emerged with their bloody burden, but that same evening they too were cut down from where they dangled. Gretchen could not manage three corpses in one day, and so declined to bat away the circling crows.
I am standing in that circular room now, my arms tied behind my back and my ankles shackled. The casement is already open, and an icy February wind stings my face. I have asked for a hood, and they have said yes, for I am still a von Schwarzenberg and it is not appropriate for my own subjects to see my face disfigured, even in death. I am to die in public so that everyone will know I am truly dead, and have not just been sent away, or enclosed in a madhouse. I have not told anyone that it is getting harder for me to look at daylight, for that is the real reason I want the hood. These days it is only after the candles are lit that I really become alive.
It all began when I had criminal knowledge of another man’s wife. But she died, didn’t she? Doesn’t death dissolve every marriage? Elsbeth was no longer the wife of Philipp when I broke into the vault and wrenched open her coffin; he was her widower.
Philipp didn’t hear that scratching; he didn’t want to, even if he deserves to be haunted by it in his deepest dreams. He was carousing under the sign of the Black Boar when he should have been on his knees by her bier, praying for forgiveness. Instead I stood filing away that chain in the moonlight, I descended those greasy steps. I could see Philipp’s relations lying on the shelves within, and felt their disapproval. I would not have been surprised if I had looked up from my work to find them propped on their elbows in their coffins, even those who were mouldered away to skeletons, watching me unscrewing the nails that imprisoned my darling. At last I lifted the lid and heard her sighed words: ‘You came, my love!’ and she put her cool hand in mine there in the musty darkness. I took Elsbeth in my arms and lifted her out of her coffin – she was cold, and light as a child. She stood there on her naked feet and let me peel away the grave clothes until she shimmered before me, and I loved her in that shadowy place, trying hopelessly to warm her cold flesh with the heat of my own blood.
My father was accustomed to take mistresses wherever he pleased, regardless of whether it pleased them or not. Poor Barbora for a while was one; her daughter, my half-sister, was a scullery maid but also the dearest companion of my childhood. She died of consumption, the disease that had also taken my long-suffering mother, when we were both fifteen. Insisting that he pay for her burial and provide her with a headstone was the first time I had openly opposed my father. When ten years later he died too, I cared less about how he was remembered, though I did insist that his coffin be shelved as far away from my mother as possible. I thought that might please her.
But loving another noble’s wife was quite another matter, even if her husband neglected her, though how a man of fifty can treat a girl thirty years younger as he did and think she will not take her revenge I do not know. But Philipp said she was cursed, and said so even in public, whilst that slender waif trembled in the shadows – I never did see her in the full glare of day. She would stand with downcast, brimming eyes, her neck and ears laden with those vulgar, costly jewels that it pleased him she should wear, more to advertise his wealth than to enhance her loveliness, which they could not. Elsbeth said nothing (how could she?), waiting only for him to finish or to curse her from his presence.
I tremble even now to think of his greasy, bloated flesh against hers, but for all his efforts an heir was not forthcoming, and finally he shut her away in the oldest part of his castle, a warren of rambling, inconsequent rooms, and did not bother even to set spies amongst her servants.
At night though a dove would fly from her window, a bird that was never seen by day, only returning in the rosy dawn, when it would look out longingly down the valley to the wooded foothills beyond, before dipping its gentle head and going in at the casement. One of the stories – one of the many – that were later told, was that my darling had a bowl in her chamber for washing her feet, and that the water was carried away each morning cloudy with mud.
Her first letter lay on the floor between my bed and the window. I cross-examined my valet as to how it got there, but he was as perplexed as I was, and could not invent any explanation even though I threatened to have the fellow flogged (a threat I would never have carried out – I am not my father). It told me, in a rounded, girlish hand, where I would find the charcoal burner’s hut, and when I should go there.
She was already there, her white shift gleaming phosphorescently in the moonlight. She smiled and held out pale thin arms to me, her small teeth gleaming like pearls in the dark shadow of her mouth. When I tried to speak to her she twisted in my embrace, and put a cool finger to my lips. Lying in her arms was like stepping into a woodland pool – cold, yes, but like silk on the skin. Afterwards, she whispered: ‘He wants me dead. They no longer bring me food.’
I opened my mouth to say that I would help her, but the words died on my tongue. A being who could escape from the high window of her prison, and come all the way to this hut on naked feet, without being observed – how could such a one be baulked by the lack of a bowl of gruel?
‘He wants to marry Ursula Hinkel.’
I knew that woman, the thirty-year-old widow of a wealthy merchant, a fat blonde who smelled of ripe cheese.
Elsbeth then raised herself on an elbow and gazed down on me, but I could not see her face, only her outline and the disorder of her hair illuminated by the moonlight behind.
‘Only you can help me,’ she said, and smiled, stroking the length of my neck with a fingernail. Then she sighed, and bent her head. The last thing I remember was her hair falling over my face and the graze of her teeth just below my ear. When I came to, it was to feel lassitude in every muscle of my body – whereas she – she in the pale light of dawn was rosy as I had never seen her. The first thing I noticed was that her nipples were dark and stiff – engorged – and then I looked at her mouth.
‘I must leave you now’, she said, and got to her feet, grasping her shift in one hand and stepping out of the hut, just as she was.
‘Wait!’ I cried out. But by the time I had got up and gone outside, there was no sign of her.
She did not starve, and we had many more nights in the hut. She taught me to hunt with her. I am not going to hang for those drained sheep, nor even for that drained shepherd boy (whose master valued him less than his ewes). I slept by day, impervious to the urgings of my treasurer, my factotum, the commander of the guard. My earldom was falling to pieces, they said, from my failure to govern it. I was even reproved for not replacing old Gretchen when she died. ‘The cook rears rabbits in the bear pit,’ they told me, ‘we are the laughing stock of the entire Bӧhmerwald.’ They’d thought me foolish because I cried over the old bear, and because I’d let her live too long. Her pelt lies before the fireplace in the Great Hall, her head still attached, its skull scraped out and steamed and stuffed with clean rags. She has eyes of Venetian glass and her teeth, for most of them had dropped out, are of whitened pine.
No, I will die because Philipp raged at seeing my darling’s flesh not wither but become fuller, more elastic, though only dust lay in her bowl, so in the end he flung her from her window to drown in the moat below. I will die because ten days after her burial the nightwatchman saw the broken chain, and fetched a companion, and the pair of them discovered me in the vault, entangled in the legs of a dead woman. My cousin’s husband at Wittingau was sent for, and he came swiftly, seeing his chance, and my trial, such as it was, took place behind closed doors. The people will accept his rule; they know the alternative would be Philipp.
Old Pavel, my father’s favourite ostler and occasional executioner, is crying as he puts the noose around my neck and adjusts the knot below my ear. He has known me since I was a baby. His tears, and the fact that his sight is filmed with age, mean that he does not see the marks on my neck, or I would have a very different death and would not lie in the von Schwarzenberg vault tonight. I shall spare Pavel, when later she and I go hunting again, for though he does not know it, he delivers me to her forever. Philipp and his new wife we shall not spare.