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Dinner with the Dark One

by Ugo Sanguinario, Duca di Valpolicella;
translated by William Smeggins.

January 19th, 1827

... I gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which I understood to be Quintoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and oppressive object. As I gazed, the light died away on its ramparts, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin viridescent vapour crept up the mountain to meet it, while the battlements above were still tipped with golden splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand as the sovereign of the scene, like a haughty and fantastical bat perched upon a perilous ledge. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and I continued to gaze, till its clustering towers, thrust like a dead man's fingers into the heavy air, alone were seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the peasants soon after began to descend. My coachman, Jason, a burly and sullen fellow, reined in the eight magnificent coal-black geldings, and for the first time since leaving the safety of Newstead, I descended from my travelling chaise, on to the mossy Transylvanian forest floor.

For one such as I, suckled upon such rich and dark works as the divine Mrs. Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, Beckford's exotic Vathek, Walpole's baroque Castle of Otranto, Lewis's ghoulish The Monk, Mary Shelley's obsessional Frankenstein and Maturin's fantastical Melmoth the Wanderer, the castle presented a grim and threatening prospect. I motioned to my maidservant, Kylie, to approach the massy portals. She grasped the grotesque wrought iron claw that served as a bell-pull and heaved. Nothing happened. She pulled a little harder. Still nothing happened. She then heaved with all her might, her blond locks flailing wildly.

"Christ, Fanny, ain't some bastard going to answer this flamin' door?" she wailed in her uncouth accent. We heard a distant sound of footsteps. The door swung open on its ancient hinges, issuing a veritable symphony of creaks, shrieks, squeaks, squeals, screams, groans, moans and howls. What prospect of ghastly corybant then met our eyes! From under a heavy, flat velvet cap, somewhat resembling a turban, from which three dodo's feathers symbolically sprang, a sniggering, infantile, misshapen visage, framed by long matted streaks of colourless, oily locks, leered out at us.

"Hello, can I park your Porsche for you?"

"My what?" I exclaimed, mystified.

"Have you heard the one about the bishop, the actress and the cockroach?" asked the hunchback, with a mad grin. Unnerved by his demented gibbering, I nevertheless persisted.

"Is the count Quintoni in?" I said, proffering my Byron Society dinner invitation. "Our journey has proved long and hard, and your lunatic ravings are scant reward for our exertions. 'Twould go far better with myself and your lord, should you e'er present me with the opportunity of meeting him, if you would be a bit more bloody servile!"

Kylie, whose weals and scars upon her back and legs were a testament to my intemperance, sighed sympathetically. "I should be so lucky," she muttered under her breath. 'Pon that moment, from within the dark recesses of the castle, a voice, sounding as the distant growl of thunder, embraced mine ears:

"That scarlet blush of rage well sets off you ebon locks, my dearest Frances, and the impassioned heaving of the silver crucifix upon your vintage lace bears eloquent witness to your blood - here, indeed, could be none other than the late Lord Byron's daughter!"

Clad in black from head to foot, Quintoni cut a monstrous figure. His huge girth was circumnavigated by a black silk cummerbund, which must have accounted for a full year's output of the material from China. He was dressed in a suit of leather tails, into which were set a multitude of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and fire opals, swirling in glittering arabesques. Upon his head there sat a slumbering vulture with its tail feathers curving elegantly around his fleshy jowl. Its talons were decorated with agates and gold leaf. About his feet a pair of marmosets curled in obvious discomfort. His argent hair was slicked back over the vasty dome of his head with goose grease, and his features betrayed as extreme a steely haughtiness as ever I could wish to encounter.

"You are most kind," I said, dropping a deep curtsey. "If 'twould please milord..."

My little speech was upon that instant lost in a furious subterranean cackling, hideous almost beyond enduring, as if the tormented souls of the damned (or some other popular minstrel group) were fast imprisoned somewhere beneath us.

"Dinner, I believe, is served," pronounced Quintoni portentously. From nowhere, it seemed, he held up a lance, the size and girth of which I could not have imagined, had I not witnessed it with my own eyes. At its point a flame burned with a blue-green light, throwing black, sinister shadows far into the castle. No sooner, however, was this demoniacal weapon brandished, than did it seem to wilt, contract and quite fizzle out, provoking thus the deepest blush upon Quintoni's erstwhile pallid face.

"Alas, my powers fail me! Would that I had not with such eager, heedless persuasion devoted my life to evil!" he wailed pathetically.

Cast into the dark, I felt the icy grip of fear upon my heart; all others present were similarly affected, for I heard many gasps and sobs of terror about me. Then, in the midst of our confusion and misery, a mysteriously disembodied voice, strong and sublimely attractive, intoned these verses, which seemed to sing in the air:

As th'etherial voice faded, the high chandeliers of the Great Hall shone with the gentle light of innumerable glow-worms, transforming the lofty vault, through which sounded a single sweet, ghostly violin, into a honeyed, welcoming place, revealing a table set with rich crystal, silver and delicate porcelain, and loaded with an unimaginable profusion of succulent, rich, perfumed, exotic and dainty dishes. Feeling strangely, but not disagreeably, singled out, I looked about me to the others and led the way forward ...