The Baron was utterly and dangerously mad- oh, there was no doubt about that! It often seemed as though he were not just possessed by the Devil, but that he was the one in possession of the Devil! He was dangerous and wild… but that did not matter. I was now bound to him body and soul, even to the point of my death.
And I always pay my debts.
How did I come to be in such a state? Oh, I remember every instant of it, every small, miniscule detail, every sensation- from the freezing air blowing against my beard to the feel of the controls in my hands. It happened at exactly 2:47 in the afternoon, on June 16, 1916, in the air thirty thousand feet over the battlefield of France, some miserable spot of real estate that they named the 'Somme'. The Brits had amassed a huge offensive, and that included in the air as well. That was where I came in. The sky was my battlefield.
My squad, part of the renown Boelcke Jasta, was in the air over our positions. As the battlefield below was huge only three other planes were in my immediate vicinity. Suddenly, out of a cover of pleasant-looking cumulus clouds roared more than a dozen British and French planes! We were outnumbered three to one and they had no intention of letting any of us return to the field alive.
The fight was on! I determined that if it was a fight the bastards wanted, then they would see what a real German fighter could do! I turned my Fokker, did a quick barrel role, then headed into the fray.
I maneuvered out of the way of a Sopwith, his machine gun bullets so close I could hear them splitting the air near me! It did not matter; I swung around again, and had not the Sopwith but a Spad directly in my sites! I knew exactly what to do: short bursts, always controlled short bursts, come in from above and behind… I pulled the trigger and…
The word out of my mouth was, "Dreck!" I don't suppose that I need to translate.
In that fleeting instant everything changed around me. As so often happened, the damn machine gun was jammed (boy would I have liked to have had a few words with the man who ran the Spandau factory…) I looked about for help, but it was useless. My two companions were in the fight for their lives, dogfighting and maneuvering about as fast as they could, hoping that some more planes would see them and come to join the dance. I looked back at the Spad, and somehow he knew immediately what had happened.
What could I do? Suddenly the Spad and a Sopwith were circling about me like birds of prey, both obviously well aware that my machine gun was useless. They were looking at each other as if to decide between themselves who would get the 'honor' of killing me.
At twenty-five years in this marvelous world my life was about to come to an end, and a rather fiery one at that! I was staring death right in the face. There was no possible chance of making it back to the field. I surveyed the land below me. At least when I went down in a ball of flame I'd like to land in the advancing enemy. But even here I was frustrated- nothing but my own troops below, and they would probably very much not like having me crash land on top of them!
There was no doubt about it. I was as good as dead, and I was probably going to take some of my fellow Germans with me.
Meanwhile, the circling matadors had made their decision. The Sopwith had backed away to give the Spad full access to me. Well, here it comes. Time to die for Kaiser and country!
But, as you have no doubt noticed, I did not die. Right as the Spad was about to open fire on me, the Baron came from literally out of nowhere, as though an angel had tossed him down from one of the clouds above! True to his form, he did not maneuver or roll or do any of the things we did to try to stay alive. He charged straight in, machine gun blazing (no short bursts for him!), unmindful of the Sopwith or anything else. He only wanted to kill- and kill he did! Before the Spad had a chance to react it was a mass of orange flame hurtling towards the battlefield and trenches below. The Sopwith was turning to avenge his comrade, but the Baron was already hurling towards him, the gun still blazing away.
I wanted very much to stay and watch the carnage, but I suddenly realized that the Baron, that crazy wild man of the sky, had just saved my life. I also had no gun- there was nothing that I could do there but become a target for yet another Spad or Spopwith. I took advantage of the diversion and made my way quickly back towards the airfield.
Somehow, no doubt with a few angels riding on the fuselage, I made it back. That evening, as always happened after a big battle, those of us who were still alive met at the club and had a few drinks, some more than just a few. We forced laughter and song, but no one could resist looking about and seeing happy faces from the previous night who were not there this evening, and never would be again. You would think that we would be used to it by now, but in truth one can never be accustomed to such horror. I looked about for some sign of the Baron, but I knew better. He never came in to sing and laugh with us. There was no song or laughter in his dark and melancholy soul.
And here I must stop my story for just a moment. By now you are probably thinking that I am talking about our commander, the famous Baron Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, known forever to history as the 'Red Baron'. No, although he was indeed our commander, his brother Lothar our immediate superior, and we were what he liked to jokingly call his 'Flying Circus', this was not the Baron I am speaking of. No, the Baron who saved my life during the Battle of the Somme was Baron Gustav von Geldseele, a minor nobleman from the mountainous district of Bavaria… and as I said earlier, a man who was totally mad.
To list the strange and macabre things about the Baron would take far too long and delay me getting to my story. But it should be noted that his dramatic manner of saving me- going straightforward towards the enemy without any type of evasive rolling maneuvers- was not at all unusual for him. He was known as the mad dog of the sky, reckless and bloodthirsty. He seemed to give no thought whatsoever to his own safety, but rather fought with a pure determination to kill, giving no thought at all to his own safety. I had seen him singlehandedly charge into a squad of eight Albatrosses alone, making no maneuver other than a direct frontal attack. When the fight was finished, he would always return to the base, still very much alive, leaving a mass of dead bodies and burning airplanes on the French countryside.
The Baron was a man that no one knew closely, no one confided in or laughed with, no one took him into town for a night of recreation. Even we were frightened of him! He was a strange, sullen, brooding loner. Even when he received his Blue Max he hardly seemed to know where he was, nor did he particularly care for the great medal being placed around his neck by some minor member of the Hohenzollern dynasty.
As the war progressed, more and more young pilots came to us, some barely knowing how to take off much less fight. We were assigned students, knowing full well that most of them would not survive their first week, many their first day.
The Baron, however, was never assigned a student. Even the generals knew that whatever lucky angel was riding with him would not be able to help the inexperienced pilots, and they would learn nothing from him but how to die (although many picked that up on their own).
As the war progressed he remained completely and utterly detached from the rest of the Jasta. As I said, he never came to the club, save for rare occasions. When he did, he did not socialize, or for the most part even speak to us. He would take his beer and sit in a shadowy corner, staring absently. No one, despite how brave we were, had the nerve to go up and try to start a conversation with him. It would be pointless anyway.
That June evening, after I filled out my report (giving the Baron full credit and praise for saving my life), I went to the club to try to settle my nerves for the task I now had to do: I had to thank him for saving my miserable life.
The club was as it always was at night. The tinny piano that had not been tuned since Napoleon's army played on it, was going full force. Men were singing, laughter was abounding, but it was, as always, a hollow laughter. It had been a rough day for us, and there were quite a few faces that were not seen. Besides, the news from the ground was not too good either. The Brits had somehow managed to take some of our land, but hundreds if not thousands of their dead were now fertilizing the fields of France. What a ghastly and miserable waste! It was going to be a long war.
I looked about and to my great relief saw my best friend, Abraham Goldfelt. He and I had hit it off very well, as he was studying to be a rabbi when the war started, and I was a teacher in a small college teaching philology. Being the only two in the Jasta with such interests, we talked and debated endlessly about archeology, old manuscripts, spirituality and the mystic side of history.
"Ah, Ernst!" he said with a genuine smile on his face. "You are okay after all! I heard you got into a bit of a scrape this afternoon."
"I did indeed, thanks to the fine precision workmanship of the Spandau Munitions Company. But happily I had a guardian angel."
"So I heard," said Fritz, spilling a bit of beer as he gestured like an idiot. "The Baron."
"Jah. The Baron," I sighed. "Speaking of which, I do need to thank him. Is he…"
"As always. He's out talking to Magdalena."
I nodded, downed my beer, and went outside. Like everyone, I knew exactly what the future rabbi meant by 'Magdalena'. Magdalena was the name of his plane. We all had small designs on the side of our planes. Mine was a beagle, earning me the nickname 'The Hound'. I thought that it was a good strategy: the enemy would not be in such a hurry to shoot at a dog. I was, as it turns out, quite mistaken in this assumption.
The Baron paid some French artist a great deal of money to make a very fancy emblem on the side of his plane. It was the head of a bride in a wedding veil. The only thing was that the bride's head was a skull! Death and maiden, and all that…
The Baron was utterly obsessed with this macabre image. He called his plane 'Magdalena' and would often go out to the hangar alone at night (invariably to his mechanics' anger) and just stand and stare at the emblem. Sometimes he would talk to it.
That was exactly what he was doing when I found him. He was standing there, almost in a trance, completely ignoring the busy mechanics who by now had become used to their obviously insane officer and worried only about repairing the plane and patching the multitude of bullet holes that somehow never found a vital part to hit.
For a moment I just stood in the doorway of the hangar, uncertain of what to do. He, who fought multiple enemies so bravely, did not even seem to be aware of my presence any more than that of the mechanics. Finally I could avoid it no longer. I cleared my throat loudly.
"Herr Baron," I said as though I had just arrived. He spun around and glared at me as though I had just interrupted him being intimate with his lover.
"I'm very sorry to intrude, sir, but, I just wanted to thank you…"
"Jah… for saving me today, with that Spad…"
"Oh yes," he said in a distant voice, "You were there, weren't you…"
This was not the answer I had expected! "Yes, I was definitely there. I just wanted to thank you, and let you know that I am very much indebted to you."
His eyes were somewhat blank. He said nothing else but simply turned around and stared once again at the skeleton bride on the side of his plane. Taking a breath I said what I had to say.
"Just want you to know that should you ever need my help, in any way at any time, you have only to ask. I was raised by my father with the standard that we always pay our debts. I am now indebted to you sir, and you have only to ask and I shall do whatever I can to help you."
He didn't seem to hear a damn word! He just stood there, his lips moving as he spoke to his airplane. I figured that it was time to leave him alone with his skeletal lover! I had said what I needed to.
I do not suppose that I have to tell you what happened after that. The miserable war that was not supposed to have gone on beyond six months dragged on for month after month, then year after year. During that time I was always looking for a way to save the Baron's life, to even the score. But it never came. It was quite obvious that the Baron did not wish to be saved!
Then came that horrible day in November of 1918, the day when officially all of the blood and horror that we had suffered was over. It had all been a waste- one massive, disgusting, sickening waste! Now we were not only defeated, but humiliated as well. Even the Kaiser we had fought so hard and loyally for had fled like a thief in the night.
Somehow I left the service and attempted to return to a normal life. As bad as things were, I was somehow able to return to my teaching position. Apparently a lot of the experienced teachers had not returned from France.
But things were not good. The district I lived in was soon controlled by the communists. Not only did they make life miserable, such as making it dangerous to even put up a Christmas tree, but they wanted to interfere with my teaching. Their version of history was, to put it kindly, imaginative. But what could I do? They were the ones with the guns.
Inflation was making my meager salary worthless, political pressure was crushing me at my job, there was even pestilence ravaging the land in the form of a deadly strain of flu! I was seriously contemplating emigrating to the United States when I received a most unexpected letter just before Christmas.
"My dear Ernst," began the letter, "I need your help desperately! It is a matter of life and death. I beg you to come to my ancestral estate in Vishofen, Bavaria and there be part of the New Year's celebrations. I will explain everything when you arrive. Please, in God's name, do not turn your back on me." It was signed, in shaky handwriting, Baron Gustav von Geldseele."
For some time I just stared at the letter. Rather than spend a New Year's Eve alone and frightened to pretend to celebrate (there was scant little reason to be festive) I could go to a castle in the Alps, and dine and drink and dance with wealthy and prominent people. Perhaps I could even make a contact who could release me from this life of bondage without having to turn my back on the land of my birth. Perhaps there was some wealthy and pretty noble daughter of some minor branch of the Hohenzollerns or Hapsburgs. And, most important of all, I could even the score with the Baron once and for all!
I arrived at the Baron's ancestral estate on December 29, 1919. It was, to put it mildly, not exactly what I had expected!
Naturally, being so high in the Alps, the snow was quite deep. Despite this, the farmer I had hired to transport me to the Baron's castle did not even deign to enter the old iron gate outside. Nor would he help me with my suitcase, forcing me to trudge through snow up to my knees to get to the castle.
As I made my way along, cursing the farmer under my breath, I wondered why the Baron's people had not cleared the driveway. Certainly if guests were expected for a celebration they would need better access than I had!
This was put on hold as I paused to catch my breath in the chilly air. The sun was quickly setting, bathing the countryside and mountain peaks in those last colorful rays of violet and mauve. Here on the estate evergreen trees, their branches bowing under snow, spoke of a beauty and peace that I could not find in the city. Before the forest was a fairly large lake, now mostly covered in ice and snow, reflecting the sunset in radiant beauty.
Not wishing to be caught in the snow in the dark, I rushed ahead to the manor. It was a large edifice, a building that could not make up its mind if it were a castle or a house. It was made of sturdy stone, painted white perhaps a century earlier, and now in desperate need of another coat. The flecks of blackened sandstone peeking through the worn paint gave the building the appearance of freckles. Much of the building was covered in ivy, the only bit of living green in this sterile, white world of winter.
As the light was quickly fading and the temperature dropping, I pounded the old doorknocker, a rusted iron machine in the shape of a wolf's head. One would think that the servants would have polished it for the celebration!
Now the wind was starting up. I was getting very cold, particularly where my pants were wet from walking through the unshoveled snow. But the wind was all that I heard. I should have heard servants rushing forth to admit a guest and apologize for their absence when I walked up carrying my own bag.
Silence. In fact, I just noticed something very frightening: there were no lights on in the building!
I knocked again, a bit more persistently, then stepped back, surveying the house again. I was right- every window in the old building was dark!
Now I was getting very frightened. I knocked again, very loudly and quite long. I listened. There was nothing. The great house seemed to be deserted!
Could I have made a mistake? Did I go to the wrong place when the Baron was actually sitting in a warm hotel lobby in Munich with a glass of champagne in one hand and a stunning blonde in the other wodering where I was?
No, that could not be! How on earth would I have even heard of such a place as Vishofen? This had to be the correct place!
I did not know what to do! There was little hope of finding my way back to the village in the dark, and it was certain to get much colder very quickly! It would be just my luck to survive the great war then freeze to death in someone's front yard! In desperation I tried the doorknob, even though I had not been properly admitted…
It was not locked! Without waiting for any further problems, I rushed inside. Imposing was better than freezing.
I was shocked. The interior was a massive entrance hall leading to a grand flight of steps. However there were no candles lit, everything was quickly becoming dark and black. The interior was covered in what may have been centuries of dust. It looked cold and lifeless, as though no one had lived there for many years. If there were servants they were certainly not earning their money. But I was beginning to believe that there were no servants.
"Baron!" I shouted out. "Baron Von Geldseele! Are you here?"
I listened carefully. There was the sound of birds frightened into flight by my hollering, probably having entered the building through a broken window somewhere. What was going on…
"Baron!" I shouted again.
I heard the sound of footsteps, uneven, almost like that of an aged cripple. I looked up to the top of the steps and saw a sight that made my blood freeze in my veins.
Could the figure standing there holding a candelabra with only three candles lit actually be the great flying ace, Baron Gustav von Geldseele?
He was a veritable wraith of the man he used to be! Once strong and robust, he looked as though he had not eaten in weeks. He was wearing filthy pajamas and a robe that was nearly falling off of him. His eyes were sunken in his head like a Berlin drug addict, his hair was long and uncut, his face covered in stubble from having not shaved in a few days. Even his hand holding the candelabra was shaking.
He looked down as though bewildered. In a raspy voice he said, "Ernst? Ernst Dietrich?"
"Yes Baron, it is me."
"Why are you here?"
I was now quite taken aback by all of this! "I am here because you invited me to come!" He looked a bit confused, so I removed the letter from my pocket and waved it in the air. "Don't you remember? You wrote me a letter asking me to come to help you. I… I was to join you in celebrating the New Year."
He sighed, supported himself on the railing- for a moment I feared that he would fall over with the lit candles and start a fire.
"Yes," he said just above a whisper, "Yes, I would do such a thing, wouldn't I?" Then he looked at me and had what I thought might be bit of a smile. "It comes in waves, you know. It has been getting worse, but there are still times when I am… aware of things." Then, with an exhausted and frightened sigh, he asked, "What is the date?"
"The twenty-ninth of December, 1919."
He stood for a moment, as if pondering the information that I had given him, as if struggling to comprehend such an arcane and difficult concept as the calendar. Then his eyes brightened a bit more as he looked down on me from the stairs.
"Perhaps there is a way. If not, at least I will not be alone. Please, Lieutenant, forgive my manners. Come, follow me." I started to walk towards the steps when he spoke again. "You had best bring your bag."
"Wouldn't your servants do that?"
He actually snickered a bit as he gestured about at the filthy and dusty, cobwebbed entrance hall. "As you can see, there are no servants. No cook, no driver, no maids, no butlers, no farmers, no gamekeepers. No one would take my money, no matter how much I offered, to be in this place, especially now. I, however, have no choice. But come, please, bring your bag; there is a welcoming fire up here and I believe some wine will warm the soul. You must be frozen, and you have had a long and hard journey. I fear that we have much to discuss."
I grabbed my bag, ascended the stairs and followed him down a long, unlit hallway. There was only one room with light appearing from under the door, and that is the one he led me to.
It pains me to describe the condition of that single room. First of all, it smelled worse than many stables I had been in! His promise of a warm fire was a bit of an exaggeration, for the flickering blue flame hardly kept the room above freezing. He tended to this immediately as I searched for a place to sit down. Every chair, each one covered in dust, was buried under filthy clothing that he had tossed haphazardly. Clothing also made up the carpeting.
When he achieved something of a decent fire he took the initiative of pulling a chair close to the fire for me, tossing away the dirty laundry as if it were useless junk. He then pulled a chair of his own close to me and reached for a bottle of Bordeaux. He handed me the bottle but no glass.
"We cannot stand on ceremony here, friend Ernst. You drink, I will talk. Uh, yes, there are no clean…"
"I understand," I said taking a swig of the marvelous wine. "A gift from our former hosts?"
He smiled, then mumbled, "Possibly. I really don't remember. As you can see, I don't remember too much of anything. Not even the war."
"Baron, what has happened here? What in the name of God has happened to you? Where is your family?"
He snickered a bit. "Do you really think that they would be anywhere near this place, especially now? Let me see… Some are in Stuttgart, some in Munich, a few even emigrated to America. If you can't beat them, join them, eh? No, I am the eldest, the heir to the title… this is something that I must face alone. You see, I am the heir, and it has fallen upon me." He stared at the flickering flame for a moment, then said in a distant voice. "Writing that letter to you is just one more in a long list of sins on my behalf. It was selfish and cowardly. Friend Ernst, you do not have to stay. You don't owe me a thing. And this… this is no place to be."
"You saved my life- I will never desert you in your time of need." I tried to lighten the conversation by looking around and saying, "I imagine that there will be no New Year's Eve party."
He did not return the smile, but looked at me with the penetrating stare of a madman. "Oh, but you are wrong friend Ernst. There will indeed be a party here when the year changes, when the decade changes. This manor will be filled with guests, but I do not believe that you will want to be with them. In fact, I am to be wed."
"Oh! You are getting married? Somehow I have the feeling that congratulations are not in order."
"You are most perceptive, Herr Dietrich. No, they are not. You see, that is why my family is not here. That is why there are no servants. And yes, that is why I fought in the air in such a reckless manner. Did you think I was merely reckless or mad? I assure, I was quite sane and very rational, You see, dying in combat, giving my life for the Kaiser and the Fatherland, that is honorable. But despite the best efforts of our enemies, I could not die. She would not allow it."
He merely nodded and stared at the flames again.
"Let me guess. This is the bride skeleton painted on the side of your Fokker." He nodded again. His hands were shaking. "And, if I may be so bold, her name is…"
For a few moments we both sat in silence, staring at the crackling flames. I glanced over at the unkempt shell of what had less than a year before been a flying ace of Germany. His madness now was no longer helping us to win the war (which was lost in the streets of cities in Germany, not the trenches of France, but don't get me started…). No, this revenant of a brave nobleman now desperately needed my help. How would I be able to convince him that he had to seek serious medical care? Even in this post-Hohenzollern time a nobleman would never freely volunteer to seek mental help.
"Please do not be offended," he said to me in a low voice, "But apparently you were not my first choice to call for help."
Rather than replying he reached to the drawer of a small table, rooted through some papers for a moment, then handed me a folded letter.
Dear Baron von Geldseele,
I am terribly distressed at hearing of your situation. My heart and prayers go out to you. Sadly, my duties here preclude me from leaving the school at this time.
If I may be so bold, I would suggest that you write to our mutual friend and comrade Lieutenant Ernst Dietrich. In his last letter to me some time ago he mentioned that he was back to teaching in the university again. I know for a fact that he is quite familiar with the subject you describe, and may be able to use his exemplary talents to help you find a solution before it is too late.
I do not know what your religious views are, as we never really spoke about that or any other subject. You may feel certain that I will be praying for you, and that the One who placed the stars in motion, who knows when a sparrow drops from the sky, will be your salvation in your time of need. I commend you to read Holy Scripture, and if I may offer a suggestion, Leviticus 16:22".
With prayers and best wishes,
"Abe!" I said with a smile, "You wrote to Abe!"
The Baron nodded.
"Yes, he is studying to be a rabbi," I continued. "I'm sure that he'll make a good one. Hopefully no one will find out about his, er, our extracurricular activities in France." I folded the letter back up but did not give it back to the Baron. I stared at the fire again, then realized that Abe had recommended me for a purpose. It was time to face the problem head on. "Baron, the time has come. There can be no more evasion, no more secrets. If our friend is right and I am the one to help you, you must now tell me everything. Tell me: who is Magdalena?"
He sat back in the chair and began a tale too fantastic to be believed.
"Magdalena is the one who will be coming for me. You see, the Von Geldseele family is under a curse. We have been for, how many, oh yes, six centuries now."
"It began in the year 1319, right here in this castle. Back then the Geldseele family was far more powerful, a warlike family wielding quite a bit of influence in the mountains of Bavaria. His name was Count Gregory Geldseele. His lands were much larger then as well. His son, a man about my age, was named Wolfram. Apparently there was a woman in the castle named Magdalena. From what little I can gather about her she was stunningly beautiful, a raven-haired beauty as they say in Spain. Although she was below his station, Wolfram fell passionately and irredeemably in love with her. The two met secretly for some time, but Magdalena refused to allow him to treat her like one of the serving girls. She would not fully give in to his desires unless he married her. Apparently she was also in love with Wolfram.
"While the two would have become engaged at once, there was the matter of the father. Back then marriages among nobility were for political alliances, not for love. Wolfram begged his father, but the old Count was adamant. He was to marry the daughter of a rival nobleman, to bring peace to the two regions.
"Apparently the word of Count Geldseele was not to be taken lightly. Wolfram had no choice but to tell the woman he really loved that their marriage could not be.
"Magdalena, not surprisingly, was furious and distraught. She said, 'you think that you can discard me like one of these whores? Oh no, my noble fool, you will indeed marry me, and every one of your descendants as well!" She wrote down a curse, stating that she would come at the anniversary of Wolfram's wedding, and take him as her husband. She would then return each century in that same day and take the reigning male member of the family, and he would be her husband as well.
"After that, she ran outside in the snow and threw herself into the freezing water of the lake."
"The lake I passed coming in?"
The Baron nodded. "The princess arrived, and the heartbroken Wolfram was compelled to wed her as part of the New Year's Eve festivities. However, in the midst of the celebration, Magdalena, dead though she was and dripping with seaweed and icicles, entered the banquet hall and took away both Wolfram and his father right at the stroke of midnight, the new year.
"It was the year 1320. Her ghost returned in 1420, 1520, and now… Now it is almost 1920."
"And you are…"
He simply nodded.
I thought for a moment, then said in as forceful voice as I could muster. "Baron, there is no doubt that your family is an old one and you have been raised on this dark fairy tale- but this is the twentieth century! Do you really believe that a girl who died six hundred years ago is going to come and drag you off to some shadow world as her husband?"
"Oh yes, just as it has happened every century since that terrible day. Oh, why did they not kill me in the war? They shot down Richtofen, why not let him live and me die?"
"Enough of that!" I demanded. "There will be no more talk of dying. I will make a deal with you, Herr Baron." He looked up. "I will stay here with you- I assume you have the room to put me up- and I will work on this problem of yours. You have family records? Documents?"
"Yes, in the library downstairs."
"Going back to the fourteenth century."
"No, that will not be necessary 1319 is what I need. You see, like our friend Rabbi Goldfelt stated, this is what I do. I interpret and study old manuscripts. I have some knowledge of old beliefs, including the lore of ghosts and curses. In the few days remaining before this appointed time, I will do everything that I can to prevent this curse from taking its course."
"You will do that for me?"
"But there is a price."
"What. Anything. Anything that I own, my wealth, my lands…"
"No, old friend, I owe you too much to take anything beyond a few meals. This is my price: when New Year's Eve comes and nothing happens, you will willingly and without argument go under the treatment of a medical facility."
"An insane asylum."
"There are many such establishments that are both discreet and cater to the needs of the upper class."
"If I am still here- unwed!- on the first day of January there will be no need. But I do accept your terms."
And that is how it began. I slept in a rather cold bedroom that apparently had not been cleaned since the Crusades. The next day he appeared somewhat in better spirits, as though my presence had somehow given him hope. He took me to the library, and acting as my assistant, dug out all of the old parchments from the period as I read them and took notes.
My hope was that I would find sufficient evidence to convince him that all of this was some figment of his madness. However, the more I dug, the more support I found for his wild story!
Yes, there had indeed been a Count Gregory Von Geldseele reigning in this mountainous, forlorn part of Bavaria from 1298 to 1322. He was, from what I could glean from my cursory search, he was a rather cruel and warlike man, certainly the kind to make alliances, then break them if it served his purposes. In short, he was a typical nobleman of his time.
And yes, there was indeed a Wolfram von Geldseele, son of the Count. And yes, he did indeed die- although the dates were inconsistent. Some stated that it was 1319, others that it was 1320. Of course- he had died on New Year's Eve! Was it in one year or the other?
Frustrated, I looked up the remaining generation of his family, the ones who would perish by this supposed curse. Edgar von Geldseele died on New Year's 1420, no details given other than 'vile sorcery'. Rudolph von Geldseele disappeared from the family manor on the first day of the new year 1520. Heinrich von Geldseele met with a strange accident on board a ship of January 1st, 1620… Josef von Geldseele on the first day of 1720, and finally there was Hermann von Geldseele, who returned alone to the now-deserted manor on the first day of January, 1820, and has never been seen since.
Now it was Gustav's turn. Gott in Himmel, what had I walked into?
Frustrated, for a long time I could do nothing but rub my forehead. I looked at the Von Geldseele family. Since that fateful holiday evening in 1320 their fortunes were never the same. Thirty years later the Black Death struck the region far worse than other districts, depopulating the serfs who worked the fields and paid the taxes, causing shortages of both food, money and soldiers. Neighboring noblemen saw the weakness and immediately pounced. As the years and centuries passed, the von Geldseele fell from its medieval position of power to one of great weakness and near poverty. However, it never became so bad that the family was destitute or without title. It was, as if the dynasty was a marionette controlled by a devil, always kept just above complete ruin, retaining title and the haunted castle, but having little comfort in this world.
Was it the ebb and tide of historical forces? Or was it the diabolic machinations of Magdalena? (I fear that by now I was beginning to wonder if this was indeed some superstitious fantasy, although my logical mind told me that it had to be. There was no such thing as curses…)
A large mantle clock chimed away the hours. I was nervous. I had spent too much time trying to disprove this madness, now I had to do what I should have been doing all along: find out a way to stop it. With each tick of the clock we got closer to her predicted return, and my failure to repay the debt. It seemed hopeless, but I knew that somewhere in this mountain of crumbling parchments laid the answer. Think, Ernst, think!
Exhausted, I could think of no other course but to go back and start at the beginning. It was then that I realized that this is where I had made a mistake. The beginning was not with Gregory von Geldseele and Wolfram on that tragic New Year's Eve- it was with this mysterious and spiteful Magdalena.
Who was she? How did she manage to cast a curse that would last for so many generations? Was it the power of a poor woman, desperately in love, but betrayed by the very one she loved?
Wait a minute! That was it!
There was a clue that no one had noticed, including me. It had been staring me right in the face and I had been too blind to see it! On the night I arrived the Baron had told me that she had written down the curse before killing herself. At the time I was so overwhelmed with the strange story that I did not stop to think just how impossible that would be! Women at that time, even nobility, were never taught such mundane subjects as how to read! The only literate women would be an abbess. But this did not seem like something that a nun would do! And why would she want to get married?
I read and reread the all of the documents pertaining to the reign on Gregory. Then I found it. In the year 1315 Gregory was about to go to war with another count, a Saxon named Albrecht Von Weise. However, before going to war, he consulted…
She was not some peasant girl Wolfram had encountered on a hunting trip, she certainly was not a military advisor, nor an abbess- she was a witch! Thus she knew how to read and write, as she read ancient books of magic. And she had the power to enact her vengeance. She had been promised both a marriage and a royal title, a promise that was not kept by the weak Wolfram. Oh, but she kept her promise!
It was now December 30th. I had found out that the story was apparently true, and I had figured out who this mysterious Magdalena was. The only thing that I had not discerned was how to defeat her. And time was ticking away far too quickly. I felt like Marlowe's Faustus screaming to the night sky for the horses of the night to run slowly.
In my exhaustion and desperation I re-read the letter that my friend Abraham and his advice to the Baron. I paid close attention to the final sentence: "I commend you to read Holy Scripture, and if I may offer a suggestion, Leviticus 16:22". I looked up the passage the fledgling rabbi had recommended: "And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness".
For quite a while I sat and pondered this curious passage. What on earth did Abraham mean by this? He was not stupid, but how could such advice possibly…
Yes! Good old Abe (he'll make a hell of a rabbi!). That was it! Now I knew how to defeat Magdalena!
The next night was New Year's Eve. Baron Gustav von Geldseele, although a doomed man, would not allow his family to be disgraced. For the first time in obviously weeks he cleaned himself up, shaved, and wore his finest dress uniform, complete with the Blue Max.
I still prayed that this was all superstitious nonsense and nothing would happen, but by now I was pretty well convinced of a terrible reality beyond anything I could imagine. As midnight neared, I went to the front door and opened it. The winter night was howling with drifting snow. A strange sound echoed on the wind, like wolves howling, or damned souls screaming. I did not concern myself with the frigid blast as I focused my eyes at the icy mist, straining to see the ice-covered lake.
Yes, there was indeed something there! It was like a glowing mass of violet fog, glowing from within itself like lightning behind a dark cloud. The mist was suspended in the air above the unbroken ice for a moment, then like a hunting falcon rushed towards me.
It took only a few second to cover the distance between the lake and the front door, but in that short time it completely transformed. What finally came at me was a hideous demon in female form. It had great wings like a bat, a robe of black with a necklace of human skulls dangling and thrashing about. Like Medusa of mythology, this thing had serpents writhing about on her head instead of hair. The eyes were mere slits of crimson glowing scarlet, like a raging fire of vengeance. There were tusks protruding from the lower lip, and the hands ended in knife-like claws. In an upraised arm she carried a torch glowing blazing with infernal flame.
The demon made a ghastly screeching sound as she flew towards me. I could not jump out of the way in time, rather I fell backwards. The specter flew right over me and continued on into the manor. I watched in abject horror as it continued down the darkened hallway, then went through the wall into the great ballroom. A flash of violet light erupted for an instant behind the double doors of the ballroom.
For a moment I was utterly paralyzed with fear and retching. There was the overpowering odor of something decaying. I felt utterly filthy and polluted just by being near such a thing. My hands were shaking, hands that once controlled a fighter plane in some vicious aerial combat, now trembling like an old man.
Finally I gathered my courage, and not concerning myself with the embarrassing fact that the front of my pants were now quite wet, I roused myself from the floor and rushed to the large ballroom where I knew the Baron was waiting. As I approached I could hear the muffled sounds of ghastly music.
No amount of madness could describe what I saw in that room. First, take note that I had been in that large ballroom several times during my short stay, and it was merely like the rest of the castle, a room covered in dust and dirt and cobwebs, where even the plush curtains were falling from the rods.
But now, as I rushed in, the great room was completely transformed. It looked exactly as it would have in the fourteenth century, with the fireplace blazing like an infernal fire. The walls that had displayed the cobwebbed and dust-laden heads of stags and boars now contained human skulls looking down on the proceedings with their infernal grin. The room was loaded with candles, but all were blazing indigo, not so much giving light as sucking it up! Amidst the gloom and shadows was a throng of wedding guests!
If I live to be a hundred- which under current circumstances is very unlikely- I will never forget the sight of those 'guests'. They were a combination of demonic creatures that were in no way human, but misshapen ghastly denizens of hell. Mixed with them were what was once human souls, some grotesque in sinful ugliness, others were seemingly bound by some cosmic deviltry to attend this dark ceremony.
A banquet was set up, long tables filled with decaying meat and offal, most likely tidbits unearthed and stolen from a cemetery. I had seen such things below me in the trenches, now it was the main course in a wedding feast! Rats, serpents, and spiders darted amongst the pieces of rotting flesh, sometimes fighting each other for the choicest morsels. Wolves walked amidst the crowd of demons and lost souls.
I marched into this place transformed into infernal madness, my mind numb with the ghastly sights. At once a wolfish creature standing on its two back legs, armed with a halberd, rushed up and tried to block my path. Somehow, just as I had in the air over France, I found the nerve to face the enemy.
I simply pushed the halberd aside and with a firm voice said, "I'm with the groom!" The werewolf let me pass.
As with all such merriment, there was laughter and conversation. However, all of this sounded as though it were miles away and spoken underwater. Amidst the words, which were harsh and barbaric (most likely the language spoken in hell) there were growls and shrieks of infernal delight.
As horrible as all of that was, it may be heard to imagine that I barely noticed it! I was staring at her. The bride Magdalena was walking up to the Baron.
A few moments ago she had been a ghastly demon with serpent hair and glowing fiery eyes and tusks. Now she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen (and I consider myself to be something of a connoisseur!). She was young, perhaps in her early twenties. Her hair was the color of fine straw. She was dressed in as elegant of a wedding dress that the Hapsburgs would have been jealous of. She walked slowly and deliberately towards the Baron, who in his dress uniform and Blue Max merely stood like a true nobleman waiting for her.
There was only one thing that betrayed her diabolic aura: her bouquet. Instead of fine flowers, it was dripping seaweed!
Most horrible was the group of 'bridesmaids' following behind her. They were men, haggard and scarcely clothed in a few rotting scraps of cloth. They looked starved and frightened, their bodies displayed the marks of whips and scourges, as well as countless bruises and burns. Each of these was shackled at the neck, collared and attached to the one in front of him, like a parade of slaves in an African auction! They cowered as they struggled along under their chains, terrified of Magdalena's wrath.
I knew instantly who these decrepit men in the chain gang were: these were the Baron's ancestors! The old bearded man in front was undoubtedly Count Gregory, the younger man behind him his son Wolfram. The others followed in tow, generations going back six centuries. Behind them, dragging along the stone floor, was an empty collar, open for now. This was undoubtedly reserved for my friend the Baron Gustav.
The Baron, for his part, was the perfect gentleman. As she approached him, he clicked his heels together as a proper Prussian officer should, and bowed slightly.
"I have been waiting for you," he said in a proud voice.
"All of your life," she mocked. She waved her arm.
A ghastly creature, somewhat in the form of a man dressed in clerical garb, walked out of the crowd. He was much like a scarecrow save for the vestments of his office. The strangest thing about him was that in the midst of his face protruded a beak, something like a stork, but filled with needle-like teeth.
"This must be done properly," laughed Magdalena.
"Of course," said the Baron as he stepped to the side of his intended bride.
I knew that I had to act now! If that uncanny entity performed the ceremony, and he voluntarily entered into a covenant with this hideous remnant, I would have no possible chance of ever saving the Baron.
"Stop this ceremony!" I shouted and charged towards the couple.
The bride and groom turned to look at me. The hall erupted into a cacophony of animal snarls, growls, howling, and doomed souls wailing. The beauty of Magdalena was now spoiled by the glowing crimson eyes that shot pure infernal hatred at me.
"How dare you, foolish mortal…" she hissed. Before she could go on I interrupted.
"Foolish, yes, but I am honor bound to be here. And I have a proposition to make to you, Frau Magdalena."
Her demeanor changed as she stared at me with catlike eyes. She raised her hand so that none of her infernal wedding guests could interfere. "Proposition?"
"Yes, if you please. I am…"
"I know well who you are, and I know why you are here. I was with you that day three years ago."
"Really? Did you cause…"
"Why would I waste my time with you? I was with my future husband, making certain that nothing happened to him, despite his best efforts otherwise. As for you… well, I was just watching and laughing."
"Well then, if you are so jolly, then let me a give you a little more. I have a proposition. It appears, my fuselage femme fatale, that you a bit behind the times. The war has changed everything- the world has changed, our nation has changed."
She viewed me with distrust but also intense interest. "Go on."
"When you walked this earth, the finest and most luxurious lives were reserved for the nobility. However, since the days of your unpleasantness, the office of royalty is no longer a guarantee of a good life." She looked interested. "Look about this nation. The Kaiser has fled, the Hohenzollerns, the Romanovs, even the Hapsburgs are a thing of the past, and many dukes and countesses are now scrubbing floors and parking cars. Do you know who the new nobility is?
"It is the merchant- business people like me! We are the new gentry, we are the ones who live in luxury and status, while lands and manors like these crumble into dust and are quickly being taxed out of existence. We people of commerce are the new nobility- people wait upon us hand and foot to win our favor. We control the purse, and thus do we control the lives of men, of society, and the destiny of nations!"
She did not say anything, but I could tell that she was interested.
"It is like this. Since you have been talking a century-long nap underwater you have not noticed: this is a new day for Germany! The Weimar Republic has made nobility a relic of the past. Prosperity is here, the money is sound, the people are happy, and business is flourishing. The merchant is the new nobility, and the world rushes to his supplication. Men may bow to a king, but the king must bow to the one who controls the purse. People like me!"
She stared in that feline manner, then glanced back at the chain gang of ragged noblemen cowering behind her. After a long silence she asked warily, "What is your proposition?"
"I have read about creatures like you, forlorn entities that dwell on the threshold of the world of the living, but are not quite able to break through. If the young nobleman Wolfram, that wretched thing with boils and scars whimpering down there, had voluntarily taken you as his bride, then you would have become completely human, and could have enjoyed the luxuries of this world. Ah, but that was denied by his foolish father, your first pet down there. All that you need is for someone to take you voluntarily as a bride. The others in that line did not, and thus you must continue century after century. Well, I believe that we can change that.
"As you know, I have a debt to pay the Baron here. Thus do I voluntarily and of my own will bequeath to you that I and my descendants shall take upon ourselves the burden of the Von Geldseele family. Look about you! They are old and drained of their resources and life. Come to me on New Year's Eve in one year and I shall gladly take you as my bride. It is the same promise made to you centuries before, but unlike the dictates of title and nobility, I am a free man able to control my own destiny. Thus I will freely accept you as my bride, and as this is given freely, you may dwell not in a cold lake but in a world of luxury undreamt of in the time you walked the earth."
For what seemed a glacial epoch she stood and stared, contemplating my words. She glanced over to the Baron, who was pathetically motioning for me not to do that, then around her at the ruined and forlorn castle.
"A year from now, you say."
"I will be right here, waiting for you. I'm certain that the Baron would not mind hosting me… and my new bride."
"If you should try to deceive me or change the course…"
"Then I would betray my good friend here, and not pay my debt. For me such a course of action would be unthinkable. I am, as I said, a businessman. I live by agreements, and always live up to mine."
"And you swear…"
"Upon my very soul."
She smiled as she slowly transformed back unto the hideous demon with serpent hair that I had seen earlier. "The Von Geldseele family is hereby relinquished of my spell. And for you, my love, be here in one year. Do not compel me to come for you, for I promise that it shall not be pleasant."
"It is done then," I said firmly.
She made a laugh not unlike the screeching of a cat and the howling of a wolf. There was a blur, the smell of electricity… then nothing. Magdalena and her demonic wedding guests were gone. It was only the Baron in his dress uniform and me in a dark and cobweb-laden ballroom.
"You fool!" he screamed at me. "Do you have any idea what you have just done to yourself? To your descendants?"
"Descendants?" I laughed. "What descendants? My parents are dead, my only sibling is a sister who is a nun in Belgium. I do not believe that she will have any children! I know that I don't have any children, so this infernal curse dies with me."
"But you have given yourself to the powers of hell…"
"Only in body. I did not bequeath my soul. I should think that such an act of self-sacrifice would count for something upstairs."
"But you have given up…"
"Perhaps I have gained more than I have lost. You see, that was Abe's message, the reason he gave that bizarre Bible passage. It was the scapegoat, the goat laden with the sins of the people, driven out into the desert for the demon Azazel. I assumed your guilt, the guilt of your ancestors, and I shall go into the wilderness, either with a very sexy albeit somewhat unearthly bride, or to death and a final reward in Paradise.
"But for now, why do we waste time with such talk? Have you forgotten? This is New Year's Eve! Herr Baron, may I suggest that we see what fine wine is down in that cellar and celebrate the ending of six centuries of the curse? And then, perhaps in the morning, we should board a train and head for Munich or Stuttgart for a proper but belated New Year's celebration!"
And that is how it happened, although I said at the beginning of this correspondence that you would scarcely believe me. And thus, as you see, my love, there is a reason why we can never be together, why we cannot be married. It would appear that I am already betrothed… to Magdalena!