By Lara Parker
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Curtis Holdings, LLC.
All rights reserved.
Barnabas woke trembling, his heart pounding, his breath coming in gasps. An enormous weight seemed to be pushing down on his body, and his limbs felt sluggish and bound. He dug his fingers into the pillow smothering his face, and clawed his way out of the dream. For a long moment he lay panting in the darkness, floating out of the nightmare, feeling himself drift as the harrowing visions spiraled down into a deepening vortex.
He rolled over with a sigh and forced open his eyes. Reaching for the sheets, he stroked their cool surfaces with his fingertips; then he twisted toward the window, where the sky brightened with a false dawn.
Aberrant thoughts ran through his skull as he struggled for release from the panic that gripped him. He wondered whether he should wake Julia and ask for another injection. She kept the vial on her dresser and would be pleased if he woke her, glad to be of assistance.
His eyes darted around his bedroom, craving some reassurance. Streaks of light wavered on the bedpost, the carving of the dresser, the gleam of the mirror. Outside his window, the branches of the oak tree slashed the moon with thick shadows.
He sat up heavily, swinging his feet off the bed onto the prickly texture of the carpet. As he stared into the dark, the tendrils of the nightmare wound their way back into his mind. The woman in his dream had been eager, moaning to meet his embrace, lifting her mouth to his, her warm body pressing against him. Her hair was fragrant and her skin smelled of musk, and he could recall the pity for her that formed itself into a cloud around the hunger flooding through his veins. He barely knew her, a downtrodden girl from River Street; and he had found her as he had found all the others, in nightly foraging through the gloomy bars huddled down by the docks. How trusting she was as she bent to him. His hand had moved beneath her cape, up the small of her back, where he could feel the seams of her dress stitched at her waist. He ached with a helpless, limb-weakening need, and his mouth soured at the thought of his contemptible obsession.
"I can't breathe ..." she whispered as he crushed her to him.
He meant then, before it was too late, to let her go. But she touched the back of his neck lightly with her fingertips, and he shuddered. He could read her thoughts, even as her movements betrayed her motives: her heady incredulity at his advances, her fantasies tumbling together in a jumble of possibilities. "Collinwood — lady of the estate — the envy of her friends — position and ease ..." Her provincial mind could hardly conceive of the wealth! Was it possible that he could love her? Make her his wife? She was desperately, recklessly willing.
She slipped the tie of her cape, revealing the sheen of her breast, and he caressed her skin. She gave him a wanton glance, and grasping his huge hand in both her pretty ones, she covered it with feverish kisses. Then, with a sigh, she melted in his embrace.
He gathered the fall of her perfumed hair and slid it back gently. It was not her breast he sought. His lips grazed the collar of her dress and brushed against the curve of her neck. Her pulse was drumming there....
NO! No more! With an effort Barnabas wrenched himself back into consciousness. Breathing raggedly, he rose, walked to the window, and looked out. The moon was full and lay cradled in the branches of the great oak tree behind Collinwood. It shone on the slates of the round tower roof, and across the stone walls, thickly veined with vines. It floated on the flagged portico with its carved balustrade and on tall leaded windows, flush on the first floor, arched above, wherein slept the family he called his own.
As always, the moonlight seduced him, and he ached to walk there, liquid silver in his veins rather than blood. But he was calmed by the newest thought he had now upon waking, and he could still hear Julia's incredulous voice in his mind. "Barnabas! We have done it! You are cured!" The realization that he was no longer a creature of the night, and that at last he could with a clear conscience return to his bed and rise with the sun — that simple acceptance of a gift so profoundly longed for, yet so unappreciated by ordinary men, flooded his mind with desperate joy.
From where he stood at the window, he could just make out, far off, beyond the woods, the Old House nestled in a glade, gleaming with the ghostliness of a Grecian temple. He felt a throb of nostalgia and, at the same time, malevolent fascination. The house was a graceful neoclassic beauty misplaced among New England maples and hemlocks, and he envisioned, as he had so often in the past, a home more destined for music and laughter: lovely balls with candlelit chandeliers and swirling couples, charming girls in flowing skirts, dashing young gentlemen. The many rooms would have been maintained by good-natured slaves who roasted venison with spices, ironed linen and polished silver, and did all things necessary, that the fortunate gentry might pursue their lives in pleasure and comfort.
But this had not been the fate of that doomed mansion, hidden away in a cold New England town, though magnolias hung their ivory blossoms over the lawn. Instead the moon cast an icy sheen on the pale edifice, effacing any ambience of warmth or gaiety. Now abandoned, it was not a temple, but a tomb, its empty rooms still echoing with generations of the Collins family, where he himself had lived, hidden, sleeping in a basement room, leaving, only to return again to Collinwood in yet another disguise, as a cousin or distant relation.
Recalling these memories now was like tasting the most foul and rotten fruit. "So like Barnabas," they always said. "Why, you could be his twin!" And, as before, he was welcomed into the incestuous fold, embraced by the secrets and unspoken guilt that isolated and distanced the family from the outside world. "It is amazing. He is so like the portrait," they would murmur to themselves.
And he, enduring shame and unspoken horrors, had remained among them for seven generations, feigning a semblance of normalcy, dead, but not dead, his grisly hungers rising and abating with the years of experimentation. His hope would brim into vague promise, only to crash again and again in utter despair as the inexorable grasp of the curse, like iron manacles, twisted once again around his soul.
Now, finally, unbelievably, inconceivably — he was free. "Barnabas! We have done it! You are no longer" — he grimaced at even the memory of the word — "a vampire...." The realization that he was cured was still difficult for him to accept. He had lived so long as a prisoner of his abominable hungers.
He threw open the casement and breathed in the cool night air. He could smell the sea, damp and pungent, and the soft mist as it rose from the wide lawns of the estate, sweet with the perfumes of gardenia and narcissus in bloom. An owl hooted two quavering notes, and far off another answered. The lure of the moonlight was strong as it revealed the world below in stark and glittering detail. Everything was as clear as in the day, but devoid of color. The shades of gray were infinitely various, and the whole was textured in a divine chiaroscuro that sculpted every object. He could still see the dew on the grass, the curve of the thick leaves of the magnolias, the fleshy perfection of the flowers.
Barnabas felt his composure returning as his breathing quieted, and his beating heart regained its normal pattern. He was free. Cured at last. Human. Why then was he haunted by these dreams? Almost nightly he woke in a fevered rush of shameful memories. If those ghastly years, those centuries of anguish, were truly behind him now, if his life was finally to be easy and normal, unfolding in the most ordinary fashion as he aged, grew old, and died — like any other man — why, then, was he still tormented by these visions of the life he had lived before? Surely they would soon fade and disappear forever.
A dog howled, long and mournfully, and another answered, plaintive, lonely, night-bound, and Barnabas grimly recognized a kindred soul. He, too, had roamed the moonlit stretches of that lawn, which hugged the stone stairway and the flagged walk, when his only social interaction had been after the sun had set and the fireplaces were lit in the great parlor. Only then could he enjoy human companionship, grow to know — perhaps even to love — the many Collinses who called this house their home. This was where it had all begun.
This was where he had welcomed his bride-to-be from Martinique, the dark-eyed girl with alabaster skin and radiant smile, his beloved Josette. This was also where her maidservant had traveled with her, the green-eyed vixen who had haunted and destroyed his life, the mysterious and beautiful Angelique.
Barnabas shivered, thinking to close the window, but he felt captured by the moonlight falling on the far-off mansion, and by the melancholy within his breast. For this was, of all nights, the very last night the house would stand.
He and Julia had agreed, after much discussion, even argument, with the rest of the family, that it was to be razed and destroyed. The wrecking crew was coming in the morning. Perhaps that accounted for the intensity of the dream, and he hoped that with the destruction of the house would go the anguished memories. Julia was right. It was ridiculous to keep the Old House standing when for two centuries the family had lived in the elegant new estate, the Great House at Collinwood, where he now slept, and rose, and walked in the sun. The Old House was rotting, falling to ruin. Only the moonlight gave it solidity. Its rooms were empty and abandoned. Too long it had been a residence of ghosts.
Barnabas shivered truly now from the cold. The howling dogs wailed again, as if mourning for some lost cave of comfort, and he reached to close the window against the night air. Just then the wind gusted and caught the trees, tossing their black branches, and the moon reeled. He looked across the gables of the roof and down to the wide lawn, and started suddenly, his breath catching in his throat. For he saw, or thought he saw, the figure of a woman standing in the shadows of the trees.
It was only her silhouette he saw, but she was dressed all in white, and her skirts skimmed the grass. She was wearing a cape that covered her hair and shadowed her face; but from the angle of her head she seemed to be looking up to the window where he stood, and he caught the gleam of her eye.
Was this some vision conjured up from his ruminations? Had he let dreams and reflections bring forth ghosts? No, this was no phantom. She stood clearly outlined against the long windows of the west wing. Then she turned and began to walk away, disappearing into the dark trees.
Who could this woman be? Perhaps her car had broken down on the road, and she had ventured up the long driveway where, intimidated by the dark windows, she was afraid to come to the door. Now she was lost, unable to find her way back to the road. Curiosity fluttered at the window of reason, for his guilty recollections were as active as ever. Some victim, he found himself surmising, perhaps the lady in his dream, some haunted soul seeking recompense, craving solace, still wandering in the world of the undead. Reaching for his robe and slippers, he smiled bitterly at the caprices of his imagination. There were no ghosts at large this night. Still, who was she? If she was in distress, he should come to her aid.
Moving across the room, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the massive gilt mirror above the dresser. He remembered when he had been unable to see his image in the glass, and it distracted him. There, in the moonlight, stood an elegant gentleman with dark hair softly curled and only slightly graying at the temples. He was a man of sophisticated, even noble, lineage, possessing an aristocratic visage: wide cheekbones; an aquiline nose; coal black eyes set deep beneath heavy brows; a delicate, sensuous mouth; lips that curved into a charming, secretive smile with only the slightest lift of the corners. It was a face of exquisite sensitivity, the face of a poet. But, smoldering in the hollows of the eyes, there was a glance so intense as to be fiercely hypnotic.
Making his way down the long hallway to the stairs, Barnabas passed the door to Julia's room. Momentarily, he hesitated, wondering whether he should wake her and send her to investigate in his place.
He had made her a solemn promise to cease all visits to the Old House. It had been a condition of his cure and the long weeks of convalescence. He thought of her patience and her professionalism, her tireless experimenting, never giving in to despair, a scientist at work, searching, testing, hypothesizing, always with such optimism. Dear Julia. He knew her motive was love; she was more devoted than any woman he had ever known. Her strength was in her knowledge. She had saved him, and it was only right that he make her his wife. She had spoken so seriously, her eyes bright above high cheekbones, "You are like an alcoholic, Barnabas, who must never again take even a sip of wine, you understand? Promise me never to return to that place!"
This was the reason he hesitated, but deciding that he would only look over the lawn, he moved resolutely forward down the grand stairway and into the foyer.
The moonlight glazed the hallway with an icy sheen. As he made his way toward the door, he glanced — as he had done thousands of times before — at his portrait hanging on the wall, thought by everyone to be the portrait of his ancestor, Barnabas Collins. There he was, dressed in the costume of an eighteenth-century gentleman, imperiously grasping a cane, the silver handle shaped in the head of a wolf. Shaking his head ruefully, he opened the door and entered the world of the night.
Barnabas moved across the damp grass toward the woods. The wind tumbled the branches of the trees, and a scattering of leaves fell about his feet. The dew was heavy on the grass, and the aroma of cherry and plum trees in spring bloom perfumed the air. The mournful owl uttered its oboe notes again, and Barnabas looked up to see the great bird swoop with amazing silence over his head, its wide wings drawing a swift curtain across the moon and leaving a following shadow on the grass. Barnabas felt almost giddy as he saw that he, too, cast a long silhouette across the lawn.
But he was the sole human wanderer in the landscape, and the old bitter loneliness ached in his heart. The woman was nowhere to be seen. She had vanished, and he wondered if he had imagined her.
Still, something tugged at him, drew him farther. He reached the edge of the trees. As if in a dream, he trudged through the woods, searching for the fleeing phantom and still seeing nothing. Only the dark trunks stared out at him, until he noticed the unmistakable shape of the bird once again, this time on the reaching branch of one great oak. As he drew nearer, the owl cocked its rounded head in his direction, looking down at him curiously. Then it lifted, like a sail catching the wind, its wings silvering as it floated across the tops of the trees.
Barnabas considered turning back. Some vague foreboding hung in his chest, but he kept on, crossing one more clearing and then another.
Mysteriously, his thoughts turned to Angelique and their last encounter. At that time, her death had moved him to compassion. After inflicting lifetimes of suffering, she had been grievously contrite, and she had tried once more to lift the curse. "Is it possible for you to forgive me?" she had whispered. "All I did was for love of you."
He had been drawn into those azure eyes once again, brimming with tears, and he had faltered. His lips close to her cheek, he murmured, "Yes, I forgive you. I love you. I have always loved you." Before she had died in his arms, he had said those words!
What covenant had he made through eternity that would never release him from its grasp? And yet he had been amazed at her beauty, even in death. He had marveled at the shape of her arm and the curve of her shoulder as she fell against him.
Over a century ago he had wavered in his responsibility to himself and to his family and risked everything: love, youth, and life itself, to be with her. Why? She was everything he despised; she was of questionable parentage, traitorous, violent, devoid of virtue. But she had kindled a fire in him; even now he remembered the pure agony of wanting her. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dark Shadows by Lara Parker. Copyright © 2012 Curtis Holdings, LLC.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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