Selected Czech Tales/The Vampire

For other English-language translations of this work, see The Vampire (Neruda).

THE VAMPIRE

BY

JAN NERUDA

The unpretentious steamer which plies daily between Constantinople and the Princes Islands landed us at Prinkipo, and we went ashore. There were only a few passengers, we two and a Polish family, father, mother, and the daughter with her fiancé. But no . . . there was some one else. A young fellow, a Greek, had joined the boat at Stamboul on the wooden bridge across the Golden Horn. We concluded, from the sketch-book which he was carrying, that he was an artist. He had long black curls down to his shoulders; his face was pale, and his dark eyes deeply set. At first I was interested in him; he was very obliging, and able to give a good deal of information about the country we were travelling in. But he talked too much, and after ten minutes I left him alone.

The Polish family, on the contrary, was very attractive. The old people were kindly and gave themselves no airs, the fiancé was young and distinguished-looking, a man of the world. They were going to spend the summer at Prinkipo; the daughter was delicate and needed the air of the South. The beautiful, pale girl looked as if she had just recovered from or just fallen a prey to a severe illness. She leant on her fiancé’s arm, frequently stood still to catch her breath, and now and then a dry cough interrupted her whispered conversation. Whenever she coughed, her companion stopped and looked at her sympathetically, and when she returned his look, her eyes seemed to say: ‘It is nothing. . . . I am quite happy.’

They believed in her recovery and their happiness.

The Greek, who had parted from us at the landing-stage, had recommended an hotel belonging to a Frenchman, and the family decided to take rooms there. The situation was not too high, the view exquisite, and the hotel offered every European comfort.

We lunched together, and when the midday heat had passed off a little, we all slowly walked up the slope to reach a pinewood and enjoy the view. We had no sooner found a suitable spot to rest in, when the Greek reappeared. He only bowed to us, looked round for a convenient place and sat down at a few steps’ distance from us, opened his sketch-book and began to draw.

‘I believe he is sitting with his back to the rock so that we should not see his drawing,’ I said.

‘We don’t want to,’ said the young Pole, ‘we have plenty of other things to look at.’

After a while he added: ‘I believe he is using us as a foreground. . . . I don’t mind.’

Indeed, we had enough to look at. I do not think there can be a lovelier or happier place in the world than Prinkipo. Irene, the political martyr, a contemporary of Charlemagne, lived in exile here for a month. If I could have spent a month in this place, I should have felt enriched in memories for the rest of my life. Even the one day is unforgettable. The air was so pure and soft and clear that the eye soared as on downy wings from distance to distance. On the right the brown rocks of Asia rose from the sea, on the left, in the distance, were the blue, steep shores of Europe; near us Chalki, one of the nine islands of the Princes Archipelago, lay mute and eerie, with sombre cypress groves; it looked like a haunting dream. A huge building crowns the summit of the isle . . . it is a lunatic asylum.

The surface of the Sea of Marmora was covered with ripples, and played in all colours like a giant opal. In the distance it looked white as milk, near us it had a rosy shimmer, and between the two islands it glowed like a golden orange; the depth below was sapphire blue. Its loveliness was untroubled, no large ships were moving on it; only close to the shore two small boats, carrying the British flag, were cruising to and fro, a steam launch, about the size of a signalman’s box, and a boat rowed by sailors; liquid silver seemed to drip from their oars when they lifted them rhythmically. Fearless dolphins tumbled about close to the craft, or leapt in long semicircles across the water. From time to time huge eagles sailed from continent to continent in noiseless flight.

The slope below our seat was covered with roses in full bloom, the air was saturated with their scent. Sounds of music, vague and dreamy, rose to us from the arcades of the café on the shore.

We were all deeply affected; our conversation stopped, and we gave ourselves up entirely to the emotions called forth by the contemplation of this Paradise. The young Polish girl was lying on the grass with her head resting on her fiancé’s breast. The delicate oval face took on a faint flush of colour, and suddenly tears welled forth from her blue eyes. Her fiancé understood her emotion, bent down and kissed them away, one by one. The mother saw it and wept like her daughter, and I . . . looking at the girl, I also felt as though heart was too full.

‘Here body and soul must recover,’ whispered the girl, ‘what a wonderful spot!’

‘God knows, I have no enemies,’ said her father, ‘but if I had, and met them here, I should forgive them.’

His voice was trembling.

Again there was silence; we all felt an unspeakably sweet emotion. Every one was conscious of a world of happiness within him which he longed to share with all the world. As we all understood what the others felt, none of us talked.

We had hardly noticed that the Greek had closed his sketch-book after about an hour’s work, and taken himself off with a slight acknowledgment of our presence. We remained.

When several hours had passed, the sky had begun to take on the purple tint which makes the South so attractive, the mother reminded us that it was time to go in. We descended in the direction of the hotel, slowly but with buoyant steps, like children free from care.

We sat down in an open veranda in front of the hotel. We had no sooner settled down when we heard sounds of quarrelling and abuse below us. Our Greek seemed to have an altercation with the landlord, and we listened to amuse ourselves. The conversation did not last long.

‘If it weren’t that I had to consider other guests . . .’ said the landlord, while he came up the veranda steps.

‘Pray,’ said the young Pole, when he came near to our table, ‘who is that gentleman? what is his name?’

‘Oh, God knows what the fellow may call himself,’ said the landlord bad-temperedly, and looking daggers over the balustrade, ‘we call him the Vampire.’

‘An artist, I suppose?’

‘Nice sort of an artist . . . paints nothing but corpses. No sooner has any one died hereabouts or in Constantinople, when the fellow is ready with his death mask, the very same day. That’s because he draws in advance . . . but the devil knows, he never makes a mistake, the vulture!’

The old Polish lady gave a shriek; her daughter had dropped into her arms in a dead faint, looking like death itself.

Her fiancé leapt down the steps at one bound, seized the Greek with one hand and his sketch-book with the other.

We ran down after him; both men were rolling in the dust.

The sketch-book flew open, the leaves were scattered, and we saw on one of them a striking portrait of the young girl. Her eyes were closed; a myrtle-wreath encircled her forehead.