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An Archetypal Schloss

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An archetypal schloss ... At once, in my mind's eye, an angular relic of the Dark Ages confronts the wind on top of a crag. More slowly, a second image begins to cohere. Staircases entwine. Allegorical ceilings unfold. (A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor)

Spring was advancing, and with it a guilty feeling that the golden hospitality extended by that string of relic aristocrats from Munich to Transylvania was making me lazy. Those early nights in the Netherlands and Germany sleeping in sailors' doss houses and barns seemed far away. I resolved that this leg of my journey should be made on foot and on my own resources. My next introduction was to a schloss some hundred miles away. Between lay a wild country, the early spring breathed softly over the forests and I intended to walk. The map showed a sparsely populated landscape, but I reckoned confidently on the hospitable innkeepers I had found thus far on my travels, and the usual array of barns and outbuildings at a pinch.

Two nights later, having slept badly in a barn and a forest lean-to, my confidence was dropping with the temperature. It was all too plain even to my decidedly amateur meteorology that a storm was setting in. From a high ridge a flicker of light promised a village and I had hurried eagerly towards it down a logging road, but I had lost sight of the lights and was increasingly resigned to another night in the wilds, my only hope that I could find somewhere out of the wet. As I trudged resolutely onwards I failed to avoid remembering that the wolves of The Interlopers had made their entrance in silence.

Rain had turned to sleet and sleet was rapidly becoming snow when out of the woods loomed suddenly one of the great fortified walls that one finds about the castles of those parts. Following it led to a gate, blessedly open, and I stumbled into the sheltered courtyard of a great schloss. I had become brazen in the matter of schlosses, and viewed the prospect of persuading a servant to lend me a warm kitchen corner with some equanimity. This took a blow when my hammer on a side door was answered by a hunchback of hideous aspect who answered my few words of Roumanian with an incomprehensible dialect. He seemed nonetheless to grasp my situation and seizing my rucksack indicated that I should follow him as he lead me down an icy corridor in the direction, so I hoped, of the inhabited part of the castle. I assumed initially that his master must employ this grotesque out of either pity or amusement. Here I was mistaken, for he soon proved an admirable servant.

My attempts to explain that I was neither an expected nor an honoured guest and would be more than content with a bench out of the way fell on uncomprehending ears and I soon found myself being shown into a large guest chamber containing one of those four poster beds with which I had become familiar and whose soft and scented linens were such a delicious contrast to the humbler lodgings of the previous two nights. A remarkably modern bathroom provided a blissful soak and by the time I came to don the inevitable flannels and light tweed jacket that passed as my evening wear I felt in a state to examine my surrounding more closely. The room was ordinary enough: high ceilinged and slightly drafty despite the heavy curtains and porcelain stove, it might have occupied any of dozens of turreted castles, until I looked more closely at the bed. The frame must have dated, if not quite to the Thirty Years War then to one of those periods when the fashion was to hark back to the medieval. Tester, frieze, headboard and posts were all covered with grotesque carvings reminiscent of a Dance of Death. Snakes and monstrous creatures writhed about skulls that stared blank-socketed upon the sleeper, were he able to sleep at all. But it was beautiful in its way, and to my mind an excellent joke on the uninvited guest. When the servant returned to lead me to the library to entertain myself as best I might before a solitary supper, I was in fine spirits.

Occupying what must once have been some great gallery, the library surpassed all possible hopes. The Konversations-lexikon, Larousse XXème-Siècle, and Encyclopedia Britannica stood upon the shelves not only all together, but in multiple editions. The Greeks gave on to the Romans, the Romans to the Renaissance and the Humanists and thence to the Enlightenment philosophers, German idealists, and an assortment of literary classics in half a dozen languages. More recent collections sported a mix of popular novels - I spotted Karl May and HG Wells - scientific treatises, slim volumes of verse, natural history, an enviable collection of European folklore, and political and economic theorists. I spent so long exploring its depths that by the time the hunchback arrived with a tray I had scarcely begun to think of reading more of a book than its spine. Saki having been on my mind I selected Clovis.

The Count's cook was a former innkeeper and I enjoyed some excellent veal and a slice of a rich tart before the hunchback took me to meet my host. He occupied a well-appointed study-cum-drawing room and came forward to meet me with many apologies for his earlier absence and to usher me into a chair before the fire.

The schloss's master, Graf von Krolock, was a tall, thin, and austerely handsome man, clad in an extravagant smoking jacket that reached to his ankles and all but covered his sober evening dress. Nonetheless he would not have been an exceptional man of his type were it not for the extreme pallor of his face and hands and the extraordinary way he had of wearing his iron-grey hair, which swept back from his brow and fell loose almost to his waist. As he took my hand in a firm grip and ushered me warmly to a couch before the hearth I entered upon an embarrassed explanation of my seeking shelter from the storm and the misunderstanding that had lead me to be treated in such a generous way. He dismissed my apologies with a wave of a long hand. He loved having guests, my presence could only be a pleasure and I must make myself at home. In his experience of the local weather, the storm would not blow itself out until mid-afternoon tomorrow, and tomorrow night a ball was planned. No less than a costume ball, to be lit by candlelight. He would be honoured if I stayed, and I could not resist; I had grown used by this time to taking shameless advantage of hospitality, and the prospect had an irresistible charm.

'And you will meet my son. It's a pity he should be away from home tonight, though perhaps in this weather he will return early. I know he would like to meet you.'

The Graf encouraged me to talk of myself, and long since practiced at a blithe account of my travels I set off in accustomed style. He was amused by the series of introductions I had enjoyed and promised to send me on my way in the same style. With whom had I stayed last? The B-s? Yes, he knew of them well enough, but the families were not on such terms as would have permitted them to send them on to him. A pity, I might have been spared my fears in the storm - in the firelight I had not hesitated to laugh at my imagined wolves. It was a matter of ancestral hunting rights of which he spoke light-heartedly, but with a certain circumlocution that suggested he felt, but could not say, that the B-s' illustrious ancestor might have had the right of it.

At the Graf's gentle urging my glib recitation was swiftly led into deeper territory. What had I made of the regime in Germany? My account of the unrest in Vienna disturbed him greatly. Remote as his residence was, he proved himself well-informed as to events in the world beyond his walls and had traveled greatly. His own period was the Thirty Years War and the same was responsible, I guessed, for the somewhat bitter views of humanity he expressed from time to time. After one such impassioned speech he trailed into a profound silence, staring at his own gaunt hands, before coming suddenly to himself and moving to offer me a glass of schnapps. He regretted that he could not join me, as it did not agree with him, but it was reputed very fine. Indeed the pale gold liquid went down like rarefied fire. Under that brief tutelage I felt my mind expand. A yearning came back to me, unknown in recent years of school, to impress my teacher. The process that had begun in conversation with Baron Pips Schey at Kövecses took another step forward. I had conceived of myself as a dilettante; now I understood that I might be more, that my study might have true profit as I followed those who had gone before me and learned of other ways of looking at the world.

We were poring over my journey to come on a great map spread out over the a table, his hand on my shoulder as he expounded upon the wonders before me, when the door to the drawing room opened. The Graf's sharp hiss of irritation made me jump, but as he turned his stern face softened.

'Ah, here is Herbert after all.'

The man who entered the room was unmistakably his son, though twenty-five years younger and very fair in colour, hinting at the unknown Gräfin. Herbert wore his hair long in the same style as his father, and the same extraordinary pallor and slight thickening of the nails suggested some hereditary weakness, though it scarcely marred his extraordinary beauty.

'Good evening, Father! Forgive me, if I'd known we had guest I'd have come home sooner.'

'I'm afraid I'm an unexpected guest, though your father has been very kind.'

'Father is always good to visitors.' He smiled fondly at the Graf. 'What do you say - the company of young blood keeps one young?'

The Graf looked at him drily. 'Something along those lines.'

With the formal introductions accomplished, I was helped to another glass of schnapps and we disposed ourselves once more chairs around the fire, Herbert joining me on the sofa.

'I hope, Patrick, that Father has invited you to stay for tomorrow night's entertainment?'

'Yes, I'm looking forward to it.'

'Splendid! I shall find you something magnificent to wear.'

The Graf's son was like many of the scions of those castles I had met in my travels through the former empire, being handsome, intelligent, charming, erudite, personally engaging and highly sexed. As a sprig of the old nobility he differed from his peers in the sole aspect that his attentions were directed towards his own sex. His father, contrary to what might have been my expectations, seemed to regard this eccentricity with an amused tolerance. But he was, after all, a widower and not an unhandsome one. Inclined to gallantry, he might have appreciated the lack of a youthful rival.

Herbert could have been at most five years older than I was myself, but over his fashionable clothes he seemed to wear a lightly-carried cloak of centuries of experience. He was plainly highly-educated and of an artistic frame of mind, though the odd word suggested to me a more practical mindset than at first appeared. The evident closeness of father and son, together with the absence of those velvet-framed family photographs that had adorned the similar living quarters of previous schlosses, seemed to proclaim the death of the Gräfin an event long endured and yet unreconciled. In the whole evening she was not once mentioned and a portrait of Herbert as an infant, still in petticoats and painted in an archaic style, was the sole piece of recent family history depicted in the room.

We had returned to the map table when Herbert asked, I forget at what prompting, whether I danced. At my confession that I did not he proclaimed that he would teach me and flew to the gramophone to set it playing, at which he seized me and whirled me around the room until the Graf remonstrated with his son, just in time for I was becoming dizzy. Impatience, he suggested firmly, was apt to prove counter-productive. He was sure that I would consent to dance with Herbert the following night, as indeed I felt no objection to, having just received a lesson in how much easier such things are with a skilful partner. It was the custom, he said, for men of the country to dance with their own sex, as indeed I knew though I had thought the practice more usual in the folk dance than the waltz. My head reeling with the dance, the schnapps, and the pleasures of comfort and conversation after my two cold nights on the road, I excused myself shortly afterwards. I heard the clock chime two as I did so, and scarcely believing the late hour I apologised for keeping my hosts from their beds. The Graf brushed my words aside.

'I am a night-bird myself, but you must sleep as long as you wish in the morning. I fear I have business to attend to and may not see you until the evening, but you must make yourself free of the castle. My servant will see to your meals and to anything else that you need.'

The hunchback showed me to my room. I climbed into a pair of flannel pyjamas laid out upon a bed already turned down, and sank into blissful rest, the greater for the past two nights on straw. The fine sheets had a faint scent of roses, the stove in the corner of the room sent out a dying glow, and all the skeletons that writhed upon the canopy might have danced until doomsday without disturbing me.

So at least were my thoughts as I went to bed; some hours later I was forced to revise them. The tensions of the day, the influence of the carvings on the bed, the evening's conversations and the schnapps led me into troubled dreams. Certainly I slept deeply - far better for me had I not - but not well. Horrors crawled across those dreams, nightmare visions leapt and writhed from yawning graves and that was the least of it. All through that night, serially and in tandem I was by the Count and his son seduced and despoiled. Pale hands caressed my flesh, eager and shrinking by turns. Animal teeth mouthed at my throat, human lips possessed my mouth, they took my body and drank my blood as I screamed to wake and begged to dream. I awoke in a welter of cold sweat, intense physical arousal, and utter confusion.

How my benevolent and scholarly host could have been the subject of such obscene imaginings I could not imagine. The role of his son, I dared not. I hastened to the bathroom in pursuit of an icy shower and a brisk toweling. Emerging from my ablutions I found a trolley bearing a new loaf, bread and butter and coffee, and the continued absence of my clothes from the day before, which, dearly in need of laundering, had vanished between dinner and bed. The hunchback, clearly, had been at work. I flung back the curtains and wrestled with the shutters to reveal the world outside, such little of it as I could see through the whirling snow. It was a bleak sight that breakfast did little to assuage. I clad myself in shirt and flannels topped with a dressing gown from the bathroom shelves and set off to explore.

The library I had already discovered, and indeed there was little difference to be seen by daylight, the windows having long since been bricked up to allow for more shelves. Generation after generation of scholars had added to its riches and it might have been the envy of many a seat of learning. Overwhelmed, I scarcely knew where to begin and after tracing my fingers greedily down spine after spine, I gathered a few trivial volumes and vowed to return later.

As I wandered through the shadowy hallways, I gave thanks to the electric light. Like many a schloss built for defence against Tatar and Turk, the outer walls contained few windows and I wandered comfortably through the hallways with no heed for the foul weather outside. Where windows might have admitted the world beyond they were largely closed by rich curtains and shutters like those in my room in the joint interests, I presumed, of the preservation of the ancient impedimenta within and the heating bill, for in these days there were few aristocrats who did not have a care for the cost of coal and oil. In a splendid many-pillared picture gallery I devotedly unveiled each great window to gaze upon the ancestors of the present inhabitants with their coronets and velvet sleeves, their lace and pearls and hunting dogs, all set forth in fragile pigments, before painstakingly shutting out every chink of light once more. Only in the chapel, swept and garnished, did the light blaze in from either side.

I returned to my chamber for a late lunch of bread and ham and crisp bright apples. Feeling a little stuffy I sat for a while in the window and sketched what I could see of wood and wild beyond the curtain wall before closing both shutters and curtains in disgust and retreating to the bathroom for the splendid wallow I had denied myself in the morning. Emerging from piles of soap bubbles in sybaritic languor I threw an armful of wood into the stove, wrapped myself in a pair of drawers and the dressing gown and sank upon the bed to neglect both sketchbook and journal for the company of Keats.

My restless night had left me tired, and I was half-drowsing atop the feathers of a continental quilt when a knock upon the door heralded a visitor. Herbert entered, and it seemed that every terror of the night came in his wake. I must have shown something of the shock, for he laughed.

'My dear, have I surprised you? Father is occupied, but I thought we really must arrange something for you for you to wear this evening.'

I recovered myself and welcomed him properly, the ludicrous visions of the night retreating in the face of his perfectly ordinary presence and the idle comforts of a bed I was loathe to leave. He seemed to understand, for he crossed the room swiftly and instead of taking the armchair that would have compelled me to rise and join him, instead joined me on the bed, swinging his long legs - complete with leather slippers - onto the brocaded coverlet and picking up my journal and sketchbook. The former he set aside with a delicate appreciation of its personal nature, and with a glance that did not so much seek permission as indulge it, opened the latter. He commented with a flattering appreciation as he leafed through page after page of city, schloss, river and wood. Prague in particular seemed to catch his attention, and he looked long on the pages filled with the citadel from various angles, the cathedral, the bridges and the university. He reached the recent pages with which I had occupied myself that day: a few lines of the towering library, the familiar view from the bedroom window, a carving on the bed, his father, himself. At some point as he thumbed through the pages he had slung a companionable arm around my shoulders. Now that hand caressed my neck. I turned to face him, those pale and penetrating eyes caught mine, and I almost swooned back into his embrace.

His left arm encircling me was like an iron bar. The right traced my jaw, trailed down my side to rest against my hip before moving again to brush back the hair from over my brow. His long hair tickled as he pressed a kiss against my jaw and I felt the hard teeth beneath his lips and shivered.

'Father said you might be shy, but you're not, are you?'

His father! My vision darkened in overwhelming shame, but not in shame alone. It had not previously occurred to me, even after my dreams of the night, that the father's tolerance of the son might have lain in a sympathy of nature. He had been married, after all. Now terror seized me once more. Though Herbert's unspoken but unambiguous offer had overwhelmed my senses so that I seemed almost unable to move, he was after all no more than an attractive young man of about my age with a somewhat forward manner. The old Graf was another matter. The previous evening I had been charmed by him. In my visions of the night I had been petrified by him. Now I knew that were he to walk into the room as his son had done, and to seize me and sink his wax-pale body into mine, I would have welcomed him. A twist of his son's sharp fingers dealt with the dressing gown and laid me bare. His left hand still supported me as the right danced down my chest to the waistband of the now indecently revealing pants.

'Definitely not.'

He laughed delightedly. I was paralysed. I felt a sense of powerful urges barely held in check. I wanted desperately to be away from him, and yet I could not stir. His embrace was terrifying, but I felt I could not bear for it to end. Poor man! I must have confused him greatly. His actions, his body pressed against my side, made his desires plain enough and my own can have been scarcely less so. I gazed up at him in mute appeal.

It was not that I was particularly shocked, still less disgusted, by his actions. Though I had no prior bedroom experience of the male sex, enough advances had been made to me in the course of knocking around Bohemian London and I had heard enough of the usual conversations at school to be acquainted with the principles of the thing. I had never before had the slightest interest in participation, but it would have been fruitless to deny my attraction now. During this time he had not ceased to caress my body and though my thoughts writhed in turmoil my flesh did not hesitate to respond to him in kind. From far away I heard the gasp of my own breath. And yet, I could not quite surrender. Put simply, he frightened me, and his father still more so. More than that, handsome as he was, with no lack of masculine power for all his dandified appearance, something about him repelled me at a level of apprehension far below the conscious mind. It was a primeval fear, such as our ape-like ancestors might have known seeing the glowing eyes emerge out of the forest into the circle of their fading firelight, and no reason could calm it.

The dancing fingers stilled and retreated. He bent his face over me, grinning so that his fine white teeth showed, and pressed a long kiss to my neck in an almost unbearably sensual gesture. Then abruptly he sat up, touched his hand to my cheek and whispered, 'Later, chéri,' and was gone.

Did he take pity on me? Or - I recalled his father's words about impatience - merely intend to enhance pleasure through anticipation? I lay stunned for a moment before leaping to the window, throwing back curtains and shutters and flinging back the sash to take great gasps of air. The storm had dropped, and now the mild air of the föhn assailed me. In that fresh wind I came, not to my senses as my next act was surely the greatest piece of folly of all, but to resolution. A few hours of daylight were left, I could see the road into the valley: I must leave the schloss, and at once. Closing the window I pulled on my clothes, seized my bag and flung in my possessions. My breeches and shirt were still absent, but my boots stood newly-polished and I wrapped my puttees over my rolled-up trousers. The reader will be under no misapprehension as to the cause of this near-hysteria. Freud, whose works had lain on a table in the library, might have made a case study of the incident. A sense of my ludicrous behaviour came to me and I wavered. Surely all I had to do was to stay, enjoy the evening's public entertainment and politely decline its private aspect. But as I hesitated, the hallucinations of the night assailed me once more. I saw myself held fast in the Graf's arms, felt Herbert's teeth tear at my neck even as my body arched in spasms of pleasure beneath him, and the symbol of his passion was the gush of my heart's blood. I knew with absolute conviction that if I stayed I should succumb, and that if I succumbed to him then I should die.

It was a melodramatic scene, and yet looking back decades later I cannot quite laugh at it. It was, I suppose, the true panic. My dream imagination had painted the Graf and his son as demons of the night rather than face my own desires. To be confronted with the truth of them so soon afterwards was too much to bear, and so I fled. Not from the middle-aged scholar and his seductive but human son, but from myself and a mind that could conjure up such images to protect itself from understanding. I scribbled a note and left it upon the bed - I cannot now remember what I said beyond an unconvincing protest at a just-remembered engagement, and a vicious sense that, if it proved unsatisfactory, Herbert would have to explain things - shinned down the drainpipe, crossed the courtyard, and reached the road. The storm had filled in the tracks, but it was passable. With no scruples left to me, I had snatched up a freshly-cut plank as I crossed the courtyard; with the aid of a bit of sacking it made a crude but effective sledge and I covered the distance to the valley at speed. I reached the main road as dusk drew on, and just as my practical spirit was beginning to reflect that it was cold and I could see no village, and my imaginative one that 'the dead travel fast' a lorry driver drew up alongside me and directed me to jump in. He dropped me in a town some twenty miles on with directions to what he said in broken German was an excellent inn. Passing through the streets I found myself drawn into the church where a lengthy service was in progress. Like most young men of my age I could not be considered of a deeply religious mindset, but the warm light, the droning voices and the waft of incense gradually brought to me a sense, if not quite of peace, at least of respite. I stood exhausted by the wall and recited to myself what I could remember of school chapel and then, like a mantra again and again, Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. After the service I was gathering myself to leave when the priest swept me up and led me insistently to his house where I was fed with soup and put to bed in a room with a crucifix over the headboard. I cannot remember what I dreamed, only that some time in the night I stirred to hear the brushing of the bare branches of the trees against the window, and then silence.

I awoke next morning to the sound of rain and was glad to thank my benefactor and stride off to take the train to my next hosts who, though I walked up their drive with some anxiety, showed themselves pleasingly ordinary. So my adventure ended with the snows and I passed on over the Carpathians and south towards the plains. Further travels, no doubt coupled with a keenness to forget, drove what seemed remarkable at the time from the forefront of my mind, and I was recalled to it only after an encounter with an Italian actor in Constantinople that in its good-humoured pleasure and sympathy relieved me of that lingering sense of fear, and in its lack of endurance beyond the week in which our itineraries coincided suggested that I had after all not lost through my precipitate exit some promise of eternal love. Older and wiser, I wrote to the Graf with an apology. His gracious response reached me in Athens and began a sporadic correspondence. His son, he said, was presently in America, and he invited me to visit again - no fool, that man, even had Herbert said nothing he must have guessed. I meant to go, but the war intervened.


Editor's note: These papers, unpublished in Patrick Leigh Fermor's lifetime, were found after his death in a collection including the manuscript of Between the Woods and the Water, with which they clearly belong. Whether his editor of the time advised against their inclusion or Leigh Fermor himself held them back is unknown.

The incident clearly left a profound impression on him. It is noticeable that despite travelling widely in many regions where legends of vampires prevail, Leigh Fermor, normally so keen a delver into local superstition, has little to say beyond a brusque dismissal of the Hollywood legend and a note of the complexity of the peasant beliefs of which he, to the reader's great frustration, does not provide the details. It does not seem too much to suppose that his experiences in the schloss and its aftermath left him with a reluctance to dwell upon a subject that had caused him such acute and confusing feelings.

Access to the relevant Romanian archives remains restricted at the time of writing, and it has not been possible to discover the location of the Graf von Krolock's schloss.