That autumn, as she rode in the wagon towards Gallows Hill, Miranda du Val was not thinking of the babe in her arms they had given her to suckle one last time, nor was she thinking of Andrew Merriweather, whom they had already broken and banished to the forest, nor Judah Zachery, whose head was far from his body. She was thinking of her bright farm aflame with the Devil's torches, the fiery maples against a cloudless sky, and the ribbon of stream that beavers had backed into a pond. She had let them have it finally, when she had decided a pond was as good a thing to have as a wood lot.
She had no fear of what was to come. It would be only an instant, then darkness; hanging was little more than humiliation. Burning witches, as they had done for centuries, was the only way to rid the land, and even that not always successful. Fire would have been something to remember, the faggots at her feet, heat rising, smoke swirling into breath, as the trees she loved returned her to her beginnings. Hanging was child's play; but these townspeople were children, their reason as primitive and as spiteful as a child's.
The wagon shifted in the ruts of the road and she fell against the rail. She could feel the life in the new pine at her back, and she knew she could ask it to pull itself loose from the nails, collapse over the wheels, or even burst into flame. But she was bound to the boards by her chains, chains she had been obliged to purchase – along with the hangman's fee – with the meager sum they had offered for her land. She was weary of them all, this town of Salem with its hypocrisy and its hardheartedness. Better to go elsewhere now.
And despite their verdict, she would have her moment of revenge. All the sermons from all the pulpits in New England would not hold a candle to the benediction she would deliver from the scaffold. There were many things to empower a curse, but the blood of a child was the spellcaster's delight.
Chapter One: Collinsport – 1971
The Bentley throbbed down the dark road through a long corridor of overhanging trees. Wet with a late evening rain, the pavement mirrored the headlights and sucked the speeding vehicle into a whirlwind of new fallen leaves. Barnabas Collins loved the feel of this car, the muscle of it, the singing hum of the engine. It was one of the few things in his life that gave him pleasure. Since he had learned to drive, he had found solace in the hardened shine of black enamel folded like wings about him, enclosing him like a carapace – or a coffin.
"You ain't gonna believe it, Barnabas. It don't make sense. I mean when you think about it." Willie sat in the passenger seat, leaning back against the leather, staring out the window. His hay fever had returned with the goldenrod, and his breathing was a shallow wheeze. Barnabas glanced over at Willie's hands clutching the corners of his jacket, nails bitten to the quick.
"I can only assume she found an original set of plans."
"No, that's not it. It's not just the same rooms and the same stairway. It's really old; it's hundreds of years old. Where are the plans for that?"
"That's the purpose of a restoration, Willie. To produce as authentic a replica as possible."
"Yeah, well, you ain't seen it." Willie extracted a filthy handkerchief from the pocket of his jacket and blew his nose.
What were you doing wandering around the Old House anyway?"
"Roger sent me to check on them hippies living in the woods back behind the cemetery. He wants them out."
"Down...down by the stream, living in tents. She lets them live there. She even sleeps out there with them."
"It's her property."
"Roger thinks they're smoking, you know, heroin or something."
"I advised him against selling her the wreckage."
"Yeah, I can see why you don't like her, Barnabas." Willie blurted a noisy sneeze into his handkerchief.
"I did not say that. I never said I didn't like her."
"She looks an awful lot like that painting of Angelique."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
Barnabas gripped the wheel and his arms tingled with a peculiar pain as if they had fallen asleep. Although he had not spoken with the woman who had bought the Old House, had intentionally avoided her since that morning when Roger had introduced them in the study, she had nevertheless become as close to him as the rhythm of his breathing, the ebb and flow of her presence fixed deep in his brain.
She did not only resemble Angelique, he was convinced his old tormentor had returned.
"They got a camp," Willie was saying. "The whole thing's set up. Hammocks between the trees, a huge fire ring, a big green pickle barrel for water."
"You mean these people are actually living...in the woods?"
"Swimming in the river. Naked. I saw them."
"I came back along the bluff and saw the Old House. All the scaffolding was down and there wasn't nobody around so I–"
"So you decided to have a look."
"Even before I opened the door I was feeling funny. And when I saw the inside... it was like something was crawling around on my scalp."
Barnabas stepped on the gas and the car exploded into the gloom. Hulks of trees flew past and heavy branches reached down with leafy fingers, as torrents of leaves lifted by the force of the moving vehicle tumbled in their wake.
"The thing is... I got no idea how she did it so fast."
He braked as they came over the bridge. Off to the right, in the headlights, the columns of the Old House glowed a sickly yellow. Barnabas pulled the car into the circular drive, cut the engine, and sat listening to Willie's panting, aware now of his odor – what was it – oil, wood smoke, damp unwashed corduroys. After a long moment during which he tried to calm his nerves, he forced himself to turn and look up at the mansion where he had lived out his sentence. It had been six months since it burned to the ground. Yet, here it was: the enormous columns, the parapets, the thick moldings. Catching sight of the chained globe hanging above the door, he felt a chill. Where had she found such a perfect replacement?
He turned to Willie. "Now what?"
"Just come on. You got to see this."
The night was still and completely black; clouds obscured even the stars, and, feeling the October cold, Barnabas pulled up the collar of his cape. Willie had brought a large club-shaped flashlight, and its beam splayed and jerked across the lawn and up to the knoll where the house sat waiting. The ground was carpeted in spongy leaves and drifts had blown up on the long porch. Once again he had the sense of being weightless, of flying, as he had in the Bentley, as though the earth were far beneath him. And yet he heard the sound of his own footsteps like old newspaper crumpled in a box. He smiled at the foolishness of his fancy. Remembrance of flight was not enough to spirit his mortal body away from this despised place.
The light flickered over the three rounded steps, and a layer of leaves obscured all but a glimmer of the crumbling brick. Moss crawled across the chipped masonry like spilt blood. Barnabas hesitated, reluctant to go further, not because he believed Willie's warnings, but because he thought he heard a human cry, deep within the house.
"Does it occur to you that we are trespassing?"
"Nah, nobody's around this time of night."
It was the squeak of a baby owl perhaps, or the mouse its mother had found for food. Barnabas rested a hand upon one of the thirty-two massive pillars which surrounded the exterior. These had remained standing after the fire. She could never have found trees with trunks so broad and tall, the supports of a mansion that had been over two hundred years old when it burned. Willie's light revealed the peeling paint, the cracks in the round footings; then he cast the beam up to the pediment which was new and now intact, the wedding cake cornice perfectly restored, held aloft by the Doric columns, and crowned with the intricate filigree of the parapets framing the roof. Barnabas was suddenly wary of what lay within.
As it is with ancient doors whose wood has swelled with age and which now sag on rusting hinges, the heavy portal was difficult to open. It dug into the hardwood floor, and the light illuminated a curved scar in the oak, which Barnabas remembered had always been there. Pinpricks of muscle spasms began in the back of his neck and spread across his shoulders.
The shadowed vestibule opened to the staircase, and the flashlight flickered across the wallpaper and moved on. Barnabas seized Willie's arm returned the light to the wall in front of them. The green hand-blocked pattern with its stylized irises and running band of leaves was identical to the one he had admired hundreds of times.
"I told you, Willie whispered.
When he entered the drawing room and saw the huge fireplace of chocolate marble – Rosso Francia marble from Italy – and the swell of the Empire mantle, the sense of the familiar came flooding forth. He remembered kneeling on the hearth less than a year ago and, with trembling fingers, lighting the first match of the conflagration that was to follow, Angelique's laughter echoing in his brain.
Placing one hand on the graceful swirl of the stone to steady himself, he studied the carpet on the floor, the louvered doorway into the study, the crimson damask at the window. His thoughts reeled, and he had a sudden sense of deceitful remembrances invented by his unconscious. As he gazed around the drawing room in amazement, he recognized the same leaded windows, the parquet floors bronzed with aging varnish, the tall arched hallway door, and the stairs rising from the foyer up to the landing. He had a feeling of overwhelming bewilderment. What trick was this? Had the house not burned at all? Had it all been a vision of desperate rancor, the phantom flames against the sky a mirage? It stood as it always had: heavy, maimed, thick with ghosts.
'What did I tell you, Barnabas? Spooky, ain't it?"
He reached for Willie's torch and cast it over the sconces on the wall – already laden with dripping candles, up to the heavy chandelier, along the crown molding. His mind was playing tricks with him now, teasing him to seek further examples of a stunning replication that seemed to border on the macabre. The only item out of place could be the carpet. He remembered the old Tabriz well, an antique treasure the color of blood. Focusing the flashlight on the ruby nap and the creamy fringe at his feet, he was actually reassured to see that it was a new rug. So, he thought with grim satisfaction, Antoinette has not achieved perfection.
Now he was intrigued, eager to discover other variations. A portrait in a gilded frame hung in the gloom above the mantle. In a faithful restoration of the Old House, the portrait would be that of his beloved Josette. Where would the new owner have found a duplicate? And if she had, would she have made the decision, obviously one that would inflame her pride, to hang it there? He hesitated before shining the light behind the delicate French clock which he had to admit was a faultless rendition of the one that had ticked away his time, and he anticipated the joy he would feel at the sight of Josette's gentle eyes. But, just as he had suspected, it was not Josette. It was instead a portrait of Antoinette, in a scarlet gown; or, to be more precise, it was Angelique, smiling down at him with those same knowing eyes.
A nagging suspicion had been hovering just below the level of awareness, but resisting its import, he had pushed it back into the depths of uncertainty. He turned to Willie.
"Have you been downstairs?"
"No, Barnabas. I got as far as the stairway and I couldn't take any more. That's when I came to find you, to tell you about all this.
"Well, let's have a look."
"You sure you want to do that?"
"We must see, at the very least, what lies in the basement."
If it were there, then it would be proof undeniable. In the basement, in the room where he had slept, if his casket was there, then he would know that not only had she come for him, she had made preparations. All this she had done to rip away any shred of sanity he had gleaned from ten months of normalcy. Why else would she have recreated this pageant of their life together? How, in fact, could she have known how to do it at all?
At that he felt light-headed, as if sleepwalking. After all, he had been lying to himself since he had first seen her, denying suspicions huddled in the corners of his mind. Of course she had come back. All this time, when he could have been finding a way to challenge her, to resist her, instead, like a fool, he had left her to her plans, and she had almost completed them.
Opening the basement door, he whipped the light across the fire-blackened stone of the foundation and the old brick that supported the chimney. As his foot fell upon the stair, Barnabas heard the familiar clink of a loose brick which had betrayed his step hundreds of times when he had returned each daybreak satiated from his nightly forays. He thrust the beam into the blackness, and it washed across the masonry arches. Cobwebs clung to the heavy joists that supported the floor above and hung in tattered remnants, as if time itself had shriveled into a sticky tangle of gauze. Yes. There it lay, covered in dust, as though undisturbed for months. His coffin.
He handed the flashlight back to Willie who held it nervously, the light playing across the carved mahogany.
"Let's see if I am here."
"Jeeze, Barnabas. It's gotta be empty. That ain't your coffin anymore."
His fingers left glossy smears in the dust as he lifted the lid. How many times had he performed this weary gesture when the moment had come to escape the dawn? The squeak of the hinges was the music he remembered, inviting him to sleep. He pushed back, and Willie cast the light into the interior.
It was empty. The blue satin of his inner sanctum bore not even a faint silhouette of his slumbering form.
"What's that?" Willie whipped the beam around. "You hear that?"
At first Barnabas thought it must be the sound of the sea, just beyond the cliff where the wide lawn tumbled to the rocks. He had often heard the rushing of the waves and the churning of the surf echoing through the chambers beneath the house, lulling him in his daylight dreams. But there it was again, nearer, within the room, a gasp and then a gurgling moan. Barnabas breathed in. First there was the smell of newly sanded wood, paint and lacquer, but beneath it two familiar odors intermingled, the reek of a predator and the stench of prey.
"Barnabas... " Willie sounded panicked. "Someone's coming..."
"No. He is already here."
"Just... under those tarps."
A pile of painters' cloths, stiff and dried, gave evidence that construction had taken place in the house. Barnabas approached the cans of paint and paint thinner, rolls of wallpaper and hardened brushes cluttering the floor. Reaching down, he pulled back the canvas.
The man was still alive. He stared up with the helpless gaze of a dog struck by a car in the street, crushed inside but still breathing. From his heavy work boots he looked to be one of the laborers, left to clean up perhaps, after the others had gone home. He was jowly and unshaven and wore overalls and a flannel shirt which was soaked with blood. He sighed, and soft, sweet bubbles formed on his lips. It was a messy kill, careless and cruel. Wasted blood pooled on the floor beneath the man's head.
The ripped flesh lay bone and sinew bare, exposing the faint flutter of an artery, and Barnabas resisted an old urge as he lifted the man's head, and gazed into his terrified eyes. He leaned closer, breathing in the scent of blood and saliva.
"Who did this to you?"
The man tried to speak but could only manage a wheezing, "Sh-h-h..."
Was the man warning him to be silent? Was the attacker still close by? A chill crept between his shoulder blades as he looked around slowly. But he heard only his own breathing, and Willie's asthmatic pant, and the rasp of the dying man who shuddered now as his eyes glazed over.
Willie tugged at his sleeve. "Barnabas..."
"Help me lift him... roll this tarp around him." He pushed the body on its side.
"You crazy? What for?"
"He must be moved. The last thing we want is for the authorities to come snooping around here and suspect something."
"But we got nothing to do with it."
Barnabas suppressed the impulse to strike Willie. Always his dim-witted servant opposed the simplest instruction, the most obvious choice of action. He was ruled by cowardice. But Barnabas had no one else he could trust, no one who knew of his past and still remained loyal. He strove for patience. "As you have shown me, Willie, the house is now perfectly restored, and this basement room was–"
"Okay, Barnabas, okay, we'll take him to the cliff and–"
"No, Willie, better the woods. We'll bury him in the woods."
The corpse was light, like a sack of paper rubbish. Willie wrapped the body in the drop cloth and tied it with a length of rope. Then he and Barnabas carried it out to the Bentley.
The clouds had passed and faint starlight shone down. A new wind lifted the branches of the great oaks, and flurries floated to the ground, swirling around them. Leaves brushed by their heads, and scraped their faces. Barnabas tasted dust and debris.
It was first necessary to empty the trunk of the two carpets Barnabas had recently purchased to add to his collection. They had arrived that morning and he had not yet taken them to the shop. Rolled and tied with taut string, they were bundled like the dead man, but heavier, bulkier, and Barnabas dragged them across the gravel and struggled with their weight as he shoved them into the back seat. The corpse fell easily into the boot, and one arm tumbled out of the wrapping and over the bumper. Barnabas picked it up gently and placed in against the body. The bones of the wrist were still pliable, and he felt for the faintest pulse, but there was none; it was death, final and forever. Another unfortunate had perished that a beast might live to hunt again.
After searching for a deserted area close to the river, Barnabas turned off the road and drove in jarring lunges through sparse undergrowth in among the trees. There they found a place. Even though Willie had brought a shovel and a pick, he was incapable of digging the grave alone, and the two of them hacked the unyielding earth for the better part of an hour. The leaves were the problem, leaves that lay in knee-high drifts, concealing the rocks the shovel struck against with a harsh ring, dry leaves that had to be raked away and then blew back into the grave as though utterly depraved, a whirlwind of leaves, filling it up again and again with insidious purpose, as though they would make the tomb their own. In the end, he and Willie dragged the body into a shallow excavation and covered it over with rotting compost. Most difficult to bury away were the worn, paint-spattered boots, protruding out of the mulch.
As Barnabas walked back to the car, the residue of physical effort triggered a surge of nausea. At first he thought he was going to faint, or be sick to his stomach. These, he remembered, were the first signs of the unpleasant symptoms he had been experiencing since his cure. New blood, manufactured within his own bones, rushed through his arteries and ricocheted into the ventricles of his heart like a flashflood tumbling into a dry gulch. The vampire's silver stream and the cool, tensile strength in his limbs, were gone forever. In their place were spasms that doubled him up in pain. Throbbing began in his temples as though his heart was burdened with blood too thick for his veins. Dizziness ensued and he began to pant for breath.
Willie looked over. "What's the matter, Barnabas? You okay?"
"It's the cure again," he muttered. "At times, it's unbearable." As he spoke he felt his legs grow numb and crumble beneath him. His hands were charged with an electrical tingling, as if they had been asleep, and blood was flowing back into them with a slow dull ache. Heat rose out of his core. He wondered whether diabetics or epileptics also learned the signs of convulsions coming on, and waited for them to begin, knowing nothing could stop them. He reached for Willie and gripped his shoulder.
The blood heat began and grew steadily. A volcano stirred, bubbled, expanded, his breath came in gasps, until his whole body pulsed like coals fanned in a grate. A mist settled over his skin, and in seconds he was bathed in clammy sweat, and reeking of his new human smell. Breathless and exhausted, he began to shiver – always the inevitable aftermath of the reaction – and he drew his cape about him. He looked over at Willie's face which was shadowed with concern. "I'm fine," he whispered. "Let's forget all about this place."
"Yeah, right, Barnabas. Tonight never happened."
Later that night Barnabas sat by the fire in the drawing room at Collinwood. His arms ached from digging, his hands were cramped, and blisters reddened his palms. Now he remained deep in thought. Had Antoinette placed his casket in the secret room? Had she known about the body? Was she aware of a vampire on the loose? There must be some connection. Perhaps she herself...no, but still, if she were actually Angelique, nothing was beneath her.
If she had returned, if this so-called Antoinette were truly she, then she was a living connection to his past. He felt a sudden twinge in his throat. He despised her. But he had been certain she had died by his hand, forever, lost to him but for the memory of her insatiable love.
And if that were not sufficient torment, he now faced a new and even more formidable opponent. Just as he had relinquished all supremacy, another vampire had entered his domain.
Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch © Lara Parker 2012