It had been nearly a century since my last visit to the chateau. My light carriage, drawn by two dappled steeds, ascended the steep, narrow road that spiraled up the sides of the mountain in the warm summer evening. The journey lasted but a few hours, and during this brief period, I was serenaded by a myriad of creatures, both delicate and cruel, who inhabited that lofty terrain. Their voices grew dimmer as the elevation rose. By the time I reached the chateau, only the sound of clopping hooves filled my ears.
At the gate, two servants approached and took control of the reins. They accompanied the carriage to the plaza and stopped at the foot of the main stairway. I stepped out and gazed up at the old building that towered over the land. This enormous structure, with its impenetrable ramparts and unsurmountable parapets, overwhelmed my senses. The gas lamps that lined the entryway of this magnificent architecture replaced the stars and planets that existed before all this came to pass.
I bathed my eyes in this vision of delight, which loomed before me like a fortress rather than a palace. I turned to hail the servants who assisted me. They had unharnessed the horses and were walking toward the stable further up the mountain road, having anticipated the length of my stay.
The chateau’s interior was decorated in the style of Louis XIV, with its marbled floors, massive ornamental cabinets, winding balustrades and crystal chandeliers. Very little, if anything, had changed during my absence.
The habitual patrons gathered in the main hall. Like a silent breeze, I drifted past them. During the years between my visits, Madame, who raised her status within the establishment from chatelaine to host, mingled with her gentlemen admirers. She regaled in their pomposity and saw to their every comfort. Madame was not only a great beauty but a seasoned entrepreneur, satisfying all requirements of her clientele. I heard every word of their feebleminded conversations in which the fops flattered themselves in hopes of gaining special favors from their host.
Sensing my presence, Madame interrupted her conversations with a bow and excused herself.
“Ah, Count. How nice of you to make an appearance. It has been so long. I presume you arrived safely.”
“Quite. My passage over the mountain roads progressed unhindered.”
Her eyes sparkled like Jupiter and Saturn in a starless sky.
“I do not mean to pry,” she said. “But I sense you seek refuge from your troubles.”
“It is nothing more than a touch of ennui,” I replied. “Tonight, I desire something extraordinary to lighten my spirit.”
“I have just what you need,” said Madame, with a gleam in her eye. “A new girl has made quite an impression.”
“And, for what reason?” I inquired.
“I cannot say. My guests refuse to talk about it after spending an evening with her.”
“I wonder why? I insist you bring her to me.”
“She is a gentle soul, Count. But, she does possess a singular manner.”
“Those qualities are precisely what I seek.”
“It will cost you a bit more than the customary rate,” said Madame. “She’s in demand, you know.”
“Very well. I never negotiate that which must be possessed. Whatever the price, I’ll pay it.”
Madame led me down a winding staircase and through a door that opened into an underground chamber. The dampness of the room caressed my body like the taffeta sheets lining my narrow bed. I inhaled the soothing scents of petrichor and perfumed digitalis. Madame took a sincere interest in my contentment. I adored her. She placed her arm upon mine and we sauntered across the floor until we reached an apothecary.
Along the far wall lay several mahogany boxes, alike but for slight differences in size. This piqued my curiosity, which was immediately diverted by a gracious offering from Madame.
“Prepare a solution for yourself while you wait, my dear Count. I remember your fondness for a certain potation of which we are replete.”
I enjoyed the touch of Madame’s elegant arm upon mine. She was a homely little waif when first I set eyes on her centuries ago. Madame had been rescued from the perils of secret streets by the chateau’s baron. The latter had given this indelicate youth a chance at redemption as a chambermaid in his sprawling manor. She blossomed into a beautiful, well-bred woman under the late baron’s cultivation, secure in her femininity and noble character.
Madame uncoupled her arm from mine and with a coquettish smile adjusted the mother-of-pearl necklace, whose cameo pressed deep into the notch of her pale neck.
I began to think of Madame in a certain way, which took all my willpower to repress. I had not come for her that night. The heat flowing through my blood cooled, and for the moment, my arousal subdued.
Ah, Madame, I thought, you have read my mind.
“A sofa for your comfort,” she said, pointing.
She turned upon an axis like a miniature ballerina housed in a clock. Her back faced me, revealing unblemished skin beneath the décolleté gown, reigniting my passion—a torment I continued to resist.
“There is a small room behind the counter with a mirror and running water, should you require it.”
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, smiling politely.
Why should I require such amenities? They proved no use to me.
Madame left my company, making her way back across the chamber and out the door to secure the girl.
I cannot say, with certainty, when I first became aware of the diminution of my faculties. I experienced sudden lapses in consciousness during which I perceived time slowing to a standstill. I convinced myself this condition existed as a temporary aberration in my immortality. But, its persistence proved otherwise. My mental acuity, which served me well for centuries, became unreliable.
During these fugues, I often wept, deprived of hearing the glorious cries of lost souls who begged me for release. Their futile appeals became fragments of sound, swallowed up in those distortions of time. I grew despondent by the frequency of these lapses and questioned my belief in immortality, fearful there existed an end to everything and that I had entered into the senescence of eternity. Yet, having this discontent weighing on my mind, I did not lose my insatiable lust to possess whomever I desired.
And so, that night, I redoubled my efforts to enjoy what I came for, denying my troubling thoughts but, in truth, barely keeping them at bay. I prepared a favorite potion by placing a cube of sugar upon a sieve, then poured drops of absinthe over it, observing the little green fairies sidle down the glass. I never tired of spending time with these tiny demons, savoring the bitter taste of their madness with the sweetness of their hospitality.
Suddenly, my tongue began to burn. I could not reconcile this attack on my senses and became anxious, fearful the pleasures of my addiction had come to an end. My disquiet was interrupted by the sound of the chamber door opening. I looked up. Beneath the flickering lights of the ceiling candelabra stood the new girl, poised erect like Beardsley’s Venus in a white diaphanous gown. A single pale rose rested between her breasts. She held her arms behind her back as if concealing a gift.
Oh, Madame. You knew exactly what I needed.
I set the glass down and stepped forward.
“Come closer,” I beckoned. “What is your name?”
“Olalla,” she replied softly.
O-lal-la, I whispered. These three sounds brought more joy than a trinity of elated sighs.
Her name was familiar, but I could not recall where I had heard it before. Perhaps, in a story told long ago.
“May I have this dance, Olalla?”
“Certainly, sir. It would give me pleasure. But, I do not hear any music.”
“How thoughtless of me.”
With a snap of my fingers, the music commenced.
“Ah, the Devil’s Trill,” she said. “How apropos.”
“Apropos, you say. In what way, Olalla?”
“It is a very seductive piece, don’t you think?”
She was poignant in her description, and perhaps, not the innocent I imagined. The music was indeed a demonic masterpiece of seduction. And now, I employed it to thrill us with trills of forbidden harmony. I took Olalla in my arms and we glided across the chamber floor like skaters upon virgin ice.
“You dance so well, sir. Better than any gentleman I have ever had.”
“I am quite experienced in these diversions,” I replied. “But, never, never have I had the satisfaction of such a blithe companion as yourself.”
“Thank you, sir. What a lovely compliment. I hope you will allow me to repay it in some way.”
As the tempo of the phantom music increased, so did my vitality, for the quivering of the violin strings raced through my body in tempestuous arcs of fire. My braided tresses whipped wildly around Olalla, pulling her closer, fueling the mounting flames that would consume her soul. She stared at my smile, which surely betrayed my intentions. I awaited the moment of her submission when she realized in whose arms she found herself.
This did not happen.
Olalla laughed in unrestrained delight, exposing two curious, pointed teeth. Her eyes grew larger, turning into swirling, crimson pools. The sudden transformation startled me and my thoughts strayed from their path. I recalled the story of a young woman who lived in a shadow-world like mine. She wandered the land, having in her possession the extraordinary power to undo the curses of ineluctable vanity, cunning, and duplicity in the undead. Each tainted soul she touched found redemption.
“It is time I repaid your compliment,” she said. “You know who I am.”
Before I could respond, she placed her lips against my neck. In her unholy kiss, I experienced the ineffable thrill I had so often given others through the centuries.
The clock on the wall stopped and I swooned, once again sequestered inside the end of time as she feasted on my blood.
I, the heartless predator, had become the unsuspecting prey. Olalla guided me to the sofa on which I reposed. With a snap of her fingers, the music stopped. She prepared a second potion of absinthe, for the first had metathesized into a clear liquid, abandoned by the green fairies whose patience had grown thin by my devotion to Olalla.
I looked up. The petals of her pale rose turned grey.
“Drink this,” she said.
To my chagrin, each sip of the absinthe tasted more disagreeable than the last. I tossed the glass with my remaining strength. The green fairies scattered across the floor in bewilderment.
“That’s right. Run, you wicked creatures. Your fealty is no longer desired.”
Olalla’s crimson eyes flared as she nodded in agreement. She stood above me, licking the traces of my blood that lingered on her lips. Then she knelt and again helped herself to the tinctured remains that flowed through my veins. I could stand it no more.
“Stop, Olalla! I know why you are here. You have repaid my compliment a thousand times over with your kindness.”
The letting of my blood both weakened and soothed me. My eyes fluttered as I fell into a reverie, gently floating down the course of a narrow, dark river that meandered over the contour of Olalla’s body, finally depositing me at the fleshy delta of her feet. I spoke in a voice I did not recognize.
“There is something you must do.”
She led me into the room that Madame had mentioned upon my arrival. Above the sink hung a large mirror. The truth, always to be found in a looking glass, no longer terrified me, for, in the absence of time, I neither dwelled on the crimes of my past nor considered the depravity of my future. I stared at my reflection in which lurked the sorrows I had caused others. Opposite me stood a man I did not recognize—feeble with white hair, pallid complexion, and untold layers of mottled skin. A villainous scar ran from his eye to his lip. It was a face mutilated by the sins of countless ages.
As I continued to stare, the collection of grotesque features coalesced on the glass canvas into a portrait of something monstrously handsome. Peering deeper into the mirror, I entered the world of Pentimento and studied the sedimentations within the frame, excavating the goodness hidden deep beneath his soul—a new rendering of the man—one who no longer suffered from the incalculable cruelties he committed.
Olalla released the water from the faucet, and by her hands, I was absolved. The sink filled with thick clots of rotting flesh as her fingers peeled away the scurf amassed over centuries. I gazed again into the mirror, astonished by what I saw. A monster changed into a man—one I once would have ruined for his course sensibilities. Now, I adored him. How curious that the living and the undead never relinquish their sense of vanity.
Olalla attempted to drain the final drops of blood from my body.
“No, no, my Sweet. You must leave me a small souvenir. Please, let me go.”
She stepped back. The rose between her breasts turned black and withered before my eyes.
“It was the poison in your blood that killed it,” she said. “Now, you are free.”
She led me into the chamber and guided me toward the row of coffins. I lay my head upon downy pillows, never expecting such a tranquil ending to eternal damnation. Her lips touched mine, and then she was gone.
Who granted me this undeserved fate?
Her compassion saved me from iniquity. Trust my words. She is real.
Prepare yourself. Olalla will find you in the low moments of your high-spirited cravings, between your last kill and your next. Let her drain your veins of madness. She is kind that way, taking nothing more than your tainted blood and leaving you with a peace you could never possess without her.