I was quite the pretty thing when I was young; you may find that difficult to credit, seeing me now – but when I was a mere slip of eighteen and made my debut in society, the young men were falling over each other to pay court to me and win my affection, as though I was some prize in a sporting competition. I found the whole thing both amusing and vulgar and, as the season wore on, all the attention wore me down.
I escaped from London to our mansion on the coast. The sea air would clear my head and I would be able to stroll along the beach unmolested – that was my design but Mama was keen to see me married off.
“Oh, dear,” she said over the marmalade the very first morning of my retreat. “I may have, in an unguarded moment, let slip our whereabouts.”
I could have suffocated her right there in her own kedgeree.
It did not take long for the suitors to arrive. Indeed they rode up on the first train from Paddington and, after enquiring around the town, soon discovered my address. I managed to evade them for the afternoon by retiring to my bed with a professed attack of the vapours. I was most put out: it was not the bracing seaside walk I had envisaged.
In my absence, my conniving mother was far from idle. I came down to dinner to find a medium-sized ball underway. Mama had promised each young man at least one dance with me during the course of the evening. However one may admire her organisational skills, I really should have snatched the cummerbund from the nearest ardent admirer and garrotted her with it.
She introduced me to a stranger, a man older than the pack of self-absorbed, vain and shallow bachelors. He was greying at the temples and his hairline had receded to a point, a ‘widow’s peak’, I believe it is called. He was not unhandsome but there was something – I don’t know – vulpine about him that I did not like. He cut a dashing figure, dressed as he was for the opera in a long black cape with white lining. He took my fingertips in his and kissed the back of my gloved hand.
“This is Count de Cost,” said Mama before gliding away as if to speak to someone she had just noticed across the room.
“Perfectly charming,” the Count spoke with a foreign accent I couldn’t quite place. Not quite German or Russian, something Eastern and exotic. He told me he had moved into the old abbey across the bay and that made us neighbours. All through his discourse his eyes were never on me. They flitted around the room. “So many young people,” he said. “So many handsome young men – you are truly spoiled for choice, my dear.”
“I came here for peace and quiet,” I said with no small amount of petulance. “I may as well return to the city.”
He laughed; the feelings and opinions of a young woman – or indeed a woman of any age – are not to be taken seriously, it seems.
“We must gather our rosebuds while we may.” He nodded; he even knocked his heels together, and left me! The suitors swarmed like wasps around a jam jar and I had a most tiresome time of it as they attempted to outdo each other with tales of their tailors and general braggadocio.
The Count meanwhile was enjoying himself immensely. Every time I glimpsed him he was whirling around the dance floor with a different partner. The young ladies Mama had invited were glad of him, for the young men were ignoring them completely on my account.
A storm was raging, sending the sea crashing against the headland. Mama declared the party would continue all through the night. There was no chance she would allow anyone to leave while the weather continued to be so beastly. The unspoken coda to the announcement was no one could go home until I was engaged to be married.
And yet the guests appeared to be thinning. I did not notice at first but a peremptory head count, followed by another an hour later yielded numbers that did not tally. The young ladies were now outnumbering the young men. Indeed, my suitors – a baker’s dozen when they had arrived – were now only nine.
I danced with each one in turn but when I returned to my seat for refreshment or to collect the next hopeful, there was always one less. By midnight, they were down to a mere trio. It would make any choice on my part easier but I was more concerned by the mystery of their disappearance.
I saw the Count return. He was dabbing at the corner of his mouth with a handkerchief. Something occurred to me and I decided to put my theory to the test.
I grabbed the nearest suitor by the cuff and dragged him to the dance floor, despite the protests of the other two that he had already taken his turn. I had noticed that whenever I was dancing, the Count was nowhere to be seen and, whenever I was seated, he returned to the floor and danced with energy and vigour that belied his apparent years.
And every time I was one suitor down.
I led the dance, to my partner’s indignation, angling myself so I could keep an eye on the Count’s movements. I saw him beckon one of the remaining suitors, gesturing for a light. When the young man approached to oblige, the Count offered him a cigarette from a silver case and together they left the ballroom.
But the Count came back alone.
By this point, I was down to two suitors so I swapped the one I was dancing with for the one I hadn’t.
“My name is Giles,” he breathed in my ear.
“Be quiet!” I snapped, “And keep your eyes on that man.”
As we waltzed, Giles and I watched the Count beckon to the last jealous suitor. A moment later, with cigarettes between their fingers, they left the room. I urged my partner to follow.
We were just in time to see the Count usher the young man out onto a balcony. We crouched in the dark as lightning showed us flashes of a horrific scene.
The Count’s eyes glowed yellow. His mouth sprouted fangs as he tore at the young man’s trousers. He sank his teeth into the young man’s privates.
Even over the lashing rain I could hear a dreadful sucking and gurgling sound.
When he had drained the poor fool dry, the Count tipped the husk of a body over the rail and onto the rocks below in the turbulent waters.
My last remaining suitor – Miles or Giles or something – snatched up a poker from a nearby fireplace. He launched himself at the Count and drove the sharp metal rod directly through his heart. The Count gave one last malevolent snarl and burst like a soap bubble. All that was left was his clothes.
“He tried it on with me,” said Giles, his chest heaving with exhilaration. “But I don’t smoke.”
The following morning Mama put it about that twelve broken-hearted young men had tossed themselves to their doom, because I would not favour them. She thought such a story would enhance my allure. I told her she need not bother and, for once, I did not feel like pushing her off a balcony.
“This is Giles,” I told her, “and he’s the man I want to marry.”