art by Jonathan Westbrook
The Stoker Memorandum
by Lavie Tidhar
Abraham Stoker's Journal
--From the archives of the Bureau of Secret Intelligence, Pall Mall, London, Classified Ultra, for Head of Bureau Eyes Only--
I had finally arrived, with darkness gathering, casting upon the city a most unfavorable appearance. Having checked into my hotel I drank a glass of strong Romanian wine, accompanied by bear steak, which I am told they bring from the mountains at great expense. I had not enquired as for the recipe.
I am sitting in my room, watching the dance of gas light over the city. Tomorrow I set off for the mountains, and as I write this I am filled with trepidation. I have decided to maintain this record of my mission. In the event anything were to happen to me, this journal may yet make its way, somehow, back to London.
Let me, therefore, record how I came to be at this barbarous and remote country, and the sorry torturous route by which I came to my current predicament.
My name is Abraham Stoker, called Abe by some, Bram by others. I am a theatrical manager, having worked for the great actor Henry Irving for many years as his personal assistant, and, on his behalf, as manager of the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden.
I am not a bad man, nor am I a traitor.
Nevertheless, it was in the summer of 18__ that I became an unwitting assistant to a grand conspiracy against our lizardine masters, and one which I was helpless to prevent.
It had begun as a great triumph for my theatrical career. Due to a fight between the great librettist W.S. Gilbert and his long-time manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, over--of all things--a carpet, I had managed to lure Gilbert and his collaborator, the composer Arthur Sullivan, to my own theatre from D'Oyly Carte's Savoy. We were to stage their latest work, titled The Pirates of the Carib Sea, a rousing tale of adventure and peril. The first part, and forgive me if I digress, describes our lizardine masters' awakening on Caliban's Island, their journey with that foul explorer Amerigo Vespucci back to the British isle, their overthrowing of our human rulers and their assumption of the throne--a historical tale set to song in the manner only G&S could possibly do.
In the second part, we encounter the mythical pirate Wyvern, the one-eyed royal lizard who--if the stories in the London Illustrated News can be believed--had abandoned his responsibilities to his race, the royal Les Lezards, to assume the life of a blood-thirsty pirate operating in the Carib Sea, between Vespuccia and the lands of the Mexica and Aztecs, and preying on the very trade ships of his own Everlasting Empire, under her royal highness Queen Victoria, the lizard-queen.
Irving himself played--with great success, I might add!--the notorious pirate, assuming a lizard costume of some magnificence, while young Beerbohm Tree played his boatswain, Mr. Spoons, the bald, scarred, enormous human who is--so they say--Wyvern's right-hand-man.
It was at that time that a man came to see me in my office. He was a foreigner, and did not look wealthy or, indeed, distinguished.
"My name," he told me, "is Karl May."
"A German?" I said, and he nodded. "I represent certain... interests in Germany," he told me. "A very powerful man wishes to attend the opening night of your new show."
"Then I shall be glad to sell him a ticket," I said, regarding the man--clearly a con-man or low-life criminal of some sort--with distaste. "You may make the arrangements at the box office. Good day to you, sir."
Yet this May, if that was even his real name, did not move. Instead, leaving me speechless, he closed and then locked the door to my office, from the inside, leaving me stranded in there with him. Before I could rise the man pulled out a weapon, an ornate hand-gun of enormous size, which he proceeded to wave threateningly.
"This man," he said, "is a very public man. Much attention is paid to his every move. Moreover, to compound our--" our, he said!--"problem, this man must meet another very public man, and the two cannot be seen to have ever met or discussed... whatever it is they need to discuss."
This talk of men meeting men in secret reminded me of my friend Oscar Wilde, whom I had known in my student days in Dublin and who had once been the suitor of my wife, Florence. "I do not see how I can help you," I said, stiffly--for it does not do to show fear before a foreigner, albeit one with a gun in his hand.
"Oh, but you can!" this Karl May said to me. "And moreover, you will be amply compensated for your efforts." And with that, to my amazement, this seeming charlatan pulled out a small, yet heavy looking bag, and threw it on my desk. I reached for it, drawing the string, and out poured a heap of gold coins, all bearing the likeness--rather than of our own dear lizard-queen--of the rather more foreboding face of the German Kaiser.
"Plenty more where that came from," said this fellow, with a smirk on his face.
I did not move to touch the money. "What would you have me do?" I said.
"The theatre," he said, "is like life. We look at the stage and are spellbound by it, the scenery convinces us of its reality, the players move and speak their parts and, when it's done, we leave. And yet, what happens to make the stage, to move its players, is not done in the limelight. It is done behind the scenes."
"Yes?" I said, growing ever more irritated with the man's manner. "You wish to teach me my job, perhaps?"
"My dear fellow!" he said, with a laugh. "Far from it. I merely wished to illustrate a point."
"Then get to it, for my time is short," I said, and at that his smile dropped and the gun pointed straight at my heart and he cocked it. "Your time," he said, in a soft, menacing voice, "could be made to be even shorter."
I must admit that, at that, my knees may have shaken a little. I am not a violent man, and am not used to the vile things desperate men are prepared to do. I therefore sat back down in my chair, and let him explain. When he had finished, I have to admit I felt a sigh of relief escape me, for it did not seem at all such a dreadful proposition and they were willing to compensate me generously besides.
"You may as well know," Karl May said to me, "the name of the person I represent. It is Alfred Krupp."
May nodded solemnly. "But what," I gasped, "could he be wanting in my theatre?"
For I have heard of Krupp, of course, the undisputed king of the armaments trade, the creator of the monstrous canon they called Krupp's Baby, which was said to be able to shoot its payload all the way beyond the atmosphere and into space... a recluse, a genius, a man with his own army, a man with no title and yet one who, it was rumored, was virtually the ruler of all Germany.
A man who had not been seen in public for many a year.
"Fool," Karl May said. 'My Lord Krupp has no interest in your pitiful theatre, nor in the singing and dancing of effeminate Englishmen."
"I am Irish, if you don't mind," I said. "There really is no need to be so rude--" and May laughed. "Rest your mind at ease, Irishman," he said. "My master wishes only to meet certain... interested parties. Behind, as it were, the scenes."
"Which parties?" I said. "For surely I would need to know in order to prepare--"
"All in good time!" Karl May said. "All in good time."
This is a small mountain village near to my destination. I had taken the train this morning with no difficulty, yet was told the track terminated before my objective, which is the city of Bra?ov, nestled, so I am told, in a beautiful valley within the Carpathian Mountains.
This region is called Transylvania, and a wild and remote land it is indeed. The train journey lasted some hours, in relative comfort, the train filled with dour Romanian peasants, shifty-looking gypsies, Sz'kelys and Magyars, and all other manner of the strange people of this region. Also on board the train were chickens, with their legs tied together to prevent their escaping, and sacks of potatoes and other produce, and children, and a goat. Also on board the train were army officers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which this was but a remote and rather dismal outpost, with nary a pastry or decent cup of coffee to be seen.
I had wondered at the transportation of such military personnel, and noticed them looking rather sharply in my direction. Nevertheless I was not disturbed and was in fact regarded with respect the couple of times we had occasion to cross each other in passing.
The train's passage was impressive to me, the mountains at first looming overhead then--as the train rose up from the plains on which sat Bucharest--rising on either side of the tracks, and it felt as though we were entering another world, of dark forests and unexplored lands. I fancied I heard, if only in the distance, the howl of wolves, sending a delicious shiver down my spine.