Dark-haired, and with the beauty of her face still spared by death, she lay on a low flight of stairs at the far end of the chapel, beneath a great stone dragon arch, directly before the tall altar with its many candles and its great wooden cross.
Uttering a wordless, animal cry of fear and pain, the returning prince went stumbling, rushing forward. He halted, arms helplessly outspread, just before the body.
“Elisabeth!” This time the name seemed torn from him by some force that might equally have wrenched out his own soul.
The dead woman lying before him was still clad in rich garments that she must have worn in life; and her clothing most strangely dripped with water, so that the folds of fabric clung closely, wetly to the lifeless form beneath.
But it was not only water that saturated the clothing and stained the shallow steps on which the body lay, trickling down them to the stone floor. The corpse, horribly broken and battered under the concealing dress, still oozed blood.
In the awful silence following that terrible cry, the chief among the priests, distinguished from the others by the brightness of his ceremonial robe, moved a step forward.
The priest cleared his throat. Deferentially but firmly he began: “Prince Dracula—”
But the warrior was paying not the least attention. Instead he knelt, then crumpled forward, prostrate over the woman’s body, groaning, kissing, and caressing the dead clay, futilely willing it back to life.
Long moments passed, during which the prince’s shoulders gradually ceased to shudder with his sobs, and he became as still as the one he mourned.
Utter silence reigned in the chapel now; the chanting of the monks had ceased.
At last, slowly and painfully, the lord regained his feet. He swept his piercing, blue-eyed gaze across the semicircle of people standing just below the steps.
“How did she die?” His tone was deep and hollow.
The silence held. No one wanted to reply to that question. Perhaps none dared.
The prince’s face began to alter, total grief making room for the first hint of a still-formless suspicion, presaging terrible anger. He focused on the monk who had addressed him earlier.
“How did she die, Chesare?”
The monk, tall and impressively robed as if for some important ceremony, once more cleared his throat.
“She… fell, sire. From the battlements onto the rocks… into the river.”
“Fell? Fell? How is that possible? How could my wife have fallen?”
Again, only silence answered. No one had an explanation ready—or none dared to put one into words.
At last it fell to the priest, again, to find some way to speak the unhappy truth. “My son—the Princess Elisabeth had long feared for your life, as you were away at war. She knew that the Turks had put a great price on your head.
“Then this morning—only hours ago—an arrow flew in through her window. A message was fixed to it. We now know it must have been a Turkish trick—the message reported you were killed. We could not stop her… her last words…” Father Chesare seemed unable to go on.
“Her last words.” Dracula stood unmoving; his own words issued in a terrible whisper. “Tell me!”
“She left a note. It said: ‘My prince is dead. All is lost without him. May God unite us in heaven.’ ”
“God? God!” It was a roaring challenge, hurled at the chapel ceiling. The people in the semicircle, who had tentatively begun to edge closer to their prince, now recoiled at once, as if they feared the lightning that might flash instantly to strike him down.
But then Dracula seemed, for a moment, to have forgotten God. Dropping his anguished gaze once more to the dead Elisabeth, he was struck by an oddity in her appearance.
“Why is she—like this? All wet, bloody… Why have her women not seen to it that she is decently prepared?”
Once more in the chapel the terrible silence reigned, now charged as with electricity.
Inevitably the burden of explanation fell to Chesare.
“My son, her women, in their misguided loyalty, were hoping to lay her to rest quickly, here in the chapel, before—” The monk stopped there, as if afraid or uncertain how to proceed.
“Yes? Yes? Before what?”
No answer. Chesare’s face was pale.
“Damn you, priest, tell me!”
With great reluctance Father Chesare continued: “She has taken her own life, my son. And of course a suicide may not be buried here in consecrated ground. The women were hoping to conclude the burial in secret, before I, or any other representative of the Church—”
“The Church would refuse her sacred burial?”
“Prince, it is not my choice!” The priest was suddenly almost incoherent in his fear. “Her soul cannot be saved. She is damned. It is God’s law…”
Again Prince Dracula cried out wordlessly, deadly rage blended with the scream of a dying animal. Bending his lean but powerful body, he grappled with a massive stone font of holy water that stood near the low stairs and, with the strength of fury, tipped the great weight over. A surge of clear liquid overwhelmed the small puddles of river water, and washed on, reddened by Elisabeth’s fresh blood, across the floor of the chapel, splashing the sandaled feet of the hastily retreating monks.
But they were not to be allowed to leave in peace. The furious lord of the castle was advancing on them.
“God’s law, you say? Is this to be my reward for defending Christ’s holy church? For slaying ten thousand of his enemies? Then to hell with God’s law!”
A long moan of fear went up from the onlookers. Father Chesare went stumbling backward in his long robes, emitting wordless whimpers in his terror, afraid even more of the blasphemy than of the man before him. In a trembling hand Chesare raised a small wooden cross, as he might have done to defend himself against Satan himself.
The prince reached out and seized, in a grip of iron, the wrist of the arm that seemed to threaten him with the crucifix.
“Sacrilege!” the monk screamed. “Do not turn your back on Christ! Do not—” The words dissolved in a shriek of pain. The monk’s arm was being bent near breaking.
The voice of Dracula was loud and clear. “I renounce God—and all you hypocrites who feed off Him. If my beloved must burn in hell—then so shall I!”
In the next instant a bone in Father Chesare’s arm snapped under the pressure of that terrible grip, and the priest collapsed to his knees, emitting a mortal cry of fear and agony, even as the small cross fell from his hand to splash and clatter on the puddled floor.
It seemed that Dracula had already forgotten him. The warrior shouted: “If God would not save her, then to avenge her I will give myself to the powers of darkness!” He spread his arms and roared out: “Let death be my life!”
Again a groan of terror went up from those who watched and listened. There was wild alarm in the chapel, people jamming the doorway in an effort to get out.
Drawing his sword, Dracula turned and charged straight at the great wooden cross atop the altar. With all his furious strength he thrust straight for its center. The wooden symbol shivered under the piercing impact; had any human figure been there, in the position of the Crucified, it would have been impaled near the heart.
First one voice, then another, and another, screamed out that the cross was bleeding from its wound.
The chapel was filled now with a howling mob. Candles and statues were being overturned by people struggling to escape. In the confusion some even stumbled on and trampled the body of the dead woman, and many were later to report that they had seen Christ’s blood now mingled on the floor with hers.
The prince, insane with grief and rage, had bounded across the sanctuary to the tabernacle that housed the Blessed Sacrament. Wrenching open the gold doors of the small chamber, he reached inside. His hand emerged gripping the golden communion chalice, whose sacred contents he dashed violently, brutally aside.
Then, springing once more to the side of Elisabeth, he bent to rake the golden goblet through the deepest puddle of bloody holy water. When he had scooped a mouthful into the cup, he raised it high.
” ‘The blood is the life,’ ” he heard himself quoting, from sacred scripture. “And it shall be mine!”
Prince Dracula drank deep.
And with that draft it seemed to him that he was dying.
His was a terrible dying, that went unceasingly on and on.
On another sunny spring day more than four hundred years later, and a thousand miles from Castle Dracula, Mina Murray, just twenty years old, had arrived for a long visit at Hillingham House, an impressive estate in suburban London. Only a few hours had passed since the door of the guest room had closed behind the last servant helping the young guest to settle in.