"This newest tale by Ms. Raybourn is an eerie world where the impossible becomes probable."
Reviewed by Suan Wilson
Posted February 13, 2010
Romance Historical | Mystery
Theodora Lestrange rejects the role Victorian society deems
proper for women. She takes her small inheritance and
travels to Transylvania to visit her friend Cosmina.
Transylvania, the land of legends, is the perfect place to
give Theodora inspiration for her first novel. Her first
impressions of Transylvania prove Cosmina's description of
a land steeped in ancient history with tales of vampires
and werewolves. Arriving at the village below the neglected
and decaying castle, Theodora is met with a sedan chair
where peasants will carry her 1000 steps to the castle.
Theodora quickly ascertains the feudal system still
survives. When she meets the brooding Count Dragulescu, he
projects hero qualities that intrigue Theodora.
When Count Andrei Dragulescu sees Theodora's interest in
him, he encourages it. He promotes the peasant's tales of
ghost, vampires and werewolves. For Andrei needs a
distraction from the rumors of the supernatural that swirl
around his family. Seducing Theodora should not prove
difficult. Fear of the unknown draws Theodora, and the
castle with its haunting stories gives him ample tales. His
plan proceeds until a brutal murder occurs in the castle.
Andrei and the superstitious villagers convince Theodora
that evil does dwell within the castle. Pagan ceremonies
are performed and herbs are given to her for protection
against the evil. Something is very wrong, but Theodora
cannot leave Andrei to investigate alone.
I've said it before and I cannot emphasize it enough, Ms.
Raybourn channels Daphne Du Maurier. Her latest tale
is filled with atmospheric Gothic overtones. The castle,
shrouded in mystery, along with Theodora's first-person
account, provides an eerie atmosphere. Ms. Raybourn creates
a world where the impossible becomes possible.
With a modest inheritance and the three gowns that comprise
her entire wardrobe, Theodora leaves Edinburghâ€”and a
disappointed suitorâ€”far behind. She is bound for Rumania,
where tales of vampires are still whispered, to visit an old
friend and write the book that will bring her true
She arrives at a magnificent, decaying castle in the
Carpathians, replete with eccentric inhabitants: the ailing
dowager; the troubled steward; her own fearful friend,
Cosmina. But all are outstripped in dark glamour by the
castle's master, Count Andrei Dragulescu.
Bewildering and bewitching in equal measure, the brooding
nobleman ignites Theodora's imagination and awakens passions
in her that she can neither deny nor conceal. His allure is
superlative, his dominion over the superstitious town,
absoluteâ€”Theodora may simply be one more person under his
Before her sojourn is endedâ€”or her novel completedâ€”Theodora
will have encountered things as strange and terrible as they
are seductive. For obsession can prove fatalâ€¦and she is in
danger of falling prey to more than desire.
ExcerptTheodora Lestrange leaves her comfortable home in
Edinburgh to visit Transylvania at the invitation of her
childhood friend, Cosmina, now the betrothed of a Roumanian
nobleman. Theodora arrives at the Castle Dragulescu to find
that nothing is as she expectedâ€¦
After a long while, the road swung upward into the high
mountains, and we moved from the pretty foothills to the
bold peaks of the Carpathians. Here the air grew suddenly
sharp, and the snug villages disappeared, leaving only great
swathes of green-black forests of fir and spruce,
occasionally punctured by high shafts of grey stone where a
ruined fortress or watch-tower still reached to the
darkening sky, and it was in this wilderness that we stopped
once more, high upon a mountain pass at a small inn. A coach
stood waiting, this one a private affair clearly belonging
to some person of means, for it was a costly vehicle and
emblazoned with an intricate coat of arms. The driver
alighted at once and after a momentâ€™s brisk conversation
with the driver of the hired coach, took up my boxes and
He gestured towards me, managing to be both respectful and
impatient. I shivered in my thin cloak and hurried after him.
I paused at the front of the equipage, startled to find that
the horses, great handsome beasts and beautifully kept, were
nonetheless scarred, bearing the traces of some trauma about
â€śDie WĂ¶lfe,â€ť he said, and I realized in horror what
I replied in German, my schoolgirl grammar faltering only a
little. â€śThe wolves attack them?â€ť
He shrugged. â€śThere is not a horse in the Carpathians
without scars. It is the way of it here.â€ť
He said nothing more but opened the door to the coach and I
Cosmina had mentioned wolves, and I knew they were a
considerable danger in the mountains, but hearing such
things amid the cosy comforts of a school dormitory was very
different to hearing them on a windswept mountainside where
The coachman sprang to his seat whipping up the horses
almost before I had settled myself, so eager was he to be
off. The rest of the journey was difficult, for the road we
took was not the main one that continued through the pass,
but a lesser, rockier track, and I realised we were
approaching the headwaters of the river where it sprang from
the earth before debouching into the somnolent valley far
The evening drew on into night, with only the coach lamps
and a waning sliver of pale moon to light the way. It seemed
we travelled an eternity, rocking and jolting our way ever
upward until at last, hours after we left the little inn on
the mountain pass, the driver pulled the horses to a sharp
halt. I looked out of the window to the left and saw nothing
save long shafts of starlight illuminating the great drop
below us to the river. To the right was sheer rock,
stretching hundreds of feet to the vertical. I staggered
from the coach, my legs stiff with cold. I breathed deeply
of the crisp mountain air and smelled juniper.
Just beyond lay a coach house and stables and what looked to
be a little lodge, perhaps where the coachman lived. He had
already dismounted and was unhitching the horses whilst he
shouted directions to a group of men standing nearby. They
looked to be of peasant stock and had clearly been chosen
for their strength, for they were diminutive, as Roumanians
so often are, but built like oxen with thick necks and
muscle-corded arms. An old-fashioned sedan chair stood next
Before I could ask, the driver pointed to a spot on the
mountainside high overhead. Torches had been lit and I could
see that a castle had been carved out of the living rock
itself, perched impossibly high, like an eagleâ€™s aerie.
â€śThat is the home of the Dragulescus,â€ť he told me proudly.
â€śIt is most impressive,â€ť I said. â€śBut I do not understand.
How am I to--â€ť
He pointed again, this time towards a staircase cut into the
rock. The steps were wide and shallow, switching back and
forth as they rose over the face of the mountain.
â€śImpossible,â€ť I breathed. â€śThere must be a thousand steps.â€ť
â€śOne thousand, four hundred,â€ť he corrected. â€śThe Devilâ€™s
Staircase, it is called, for it is said that the Dragulescu
who built this fortress could not imagine how to reach the
summit of the mountain. So he promised his firstborn to the
Devil if a way could be found. In the morning, his daughter
was dead, and this staircase was just as you see it now.â€ť
I stared at him in astonishment. There seemed no possible
reply to such a wretched story, and yet I felt a thrill of
horror. I had done right to come. This was a land of legend,
and I knew I should find inspiration for a dozen novels here
if I wished it.
He gestured towards the sedan chair. â€śIt is too steep for
horses. This is why we must use the old ways.â€ť
I baulked at first, horrified at the idea that I must be
carried up the mountain like so much chattel. But I looked
again at the great height and my legs shook with fatigue. I
followed him to the sedan chair and stepped inside. The door
was snapped shut behind me, entombing me in the stuffy
darkness. A leather curtain had been hung at the window--for
privacy, or perhaps to protect the passenger from the
elements. I tried to move it aside, but it had grown stiff
and unwieldy from disuse.
Suddenly, I heard a few words spoken in the soft lilting
Roumanian tongue, and the sedan chair rocked hard, first to
one side, then the other as it was lifted from the ground. I
tried to make myself as small as possible before I realised
the stupidity of the idea. The journey was not a comfortable
one, for I soon discovered it was necessary to steel myself
against the jostling at each step as we climbed slowly
towards the castle.
At length I felt the chair being set down and the door was
opened for me. I crept out, blinking hard in the flaring
light of the torches. I could see the castle better now, and
my first thought was here was some last outpost of
Byzantium, for the castle was something out of myth. It was
a hodge-podge of strange little towers capped by witchesâ€™
hats, thick walls laced with parapets, and high, pointed
windows. It had been fashioned of river stones and courses
of bricks, and the whole of it had been whitewashed save the
red tiles of the roofs. Here and there the white expanses of
the walls were broken with massive great timbers, and the
effect of the whole was some faerytale edifice, perched by
the hand of a giant in a place no human could have conceived
In the paved courtyard, all was quiet, quiet as a tomb, and
I wondered madly if everyone was asleep, slumbering under a
sorcererâ€™s spell, for the place seemed thick with
enchantment. But just then the great doors swung back upon
their hinges and the spell was broken. Silhouetted in the
doorway was a slight figure I remembered well, and it was
but a moment before she spied me and hurried forward.
â€śTheodora!â€ť she cried, and her voice was high with emotion.
â€śHow good it is to see you at last.â€ť
She embraced me, but carefully, as if I were made of spun
â€śWe are old friends,â€ť I scolded. â€śAnd I can bear a sturdier
affection than that.â€ť I enfolded her and she seemed to rest
a moment upon my shoulder.
â€śDear Theodora, I am so glad you are come.â€ť She drew back
and took my hand, tucking it into her arm. The light from
the torches fell upon her face then, and I saw that the
pretty girl had matured into a comely woman. She had had a
fondness for sweet pastries at school and had always run to
plumpness, but now she was slimmer, the lost flesh revealing
elegant bones that would serve her well into old age.
From the shadows behind her emerged a great dog, a wary and
fearsome creature with a thick grey coat that stood nearly
as tall as a calf in the field.
â€śIs he?â€ť I asked, holding myself quite still as the beast
sniffed at my skirts appraisingly.
â€śNo.â€ť She paused a moment, then continued on smoothly, â€śThe
dog is his.â€ť
I knew at once that she referred to her betrothed, and I
wondered why she had hesitated at the mention of his name. I
darted a quick glance and discovered she was in the grip of
some strong emotion, as if wrestling with herself.
She burst out suddenly, her voice pitched low and soft and
for my ears alone. â€śDo not speak of the betrothal. I will
explain later. Just say you are come for a visit.â€ť
She squeezed my hand and I gave a short, sharp nod to show
that I understood. It seemed to reassure her, for she fixed
a gentle smile upon her lips and drew me into the great hall
of the castle to make the proper introductions.
The hall itself was large, the stone walls draped with
moth-eaten tapestries, the flagged floor laid here and there
with faded Turkey carpets. There was little furniture, but
the expanses of wall that had been spared the tapestries
were bristling with weapons--swords and halberds, and some
other awful things I could not identify, but which I could
easily imagine dripping with gore after some fierce medieval
Grouped by the immense fireplace was a selection of heavy
oaken chairs, thick with examples of the carverâ€™s art.
Oneâ€”-a porterâ€™s chair, I imagined, given its great wooden
hood to protect the sitter from draughtsâ€”-was occupied by a
woman. Another woman and a young man stood next to it, and I
presumed at once that this must be Cosminaâ€™s erstwhile fiancĂ©.
When we reached the little group, Cosmina presented me
formally. â€śAunt Eugenia, this is my friend, Theodora
Lestrange. Theodora, my aunt, the Countess Dragulescu.â€ť
I had no notion of how to render the proper courtesies to a
countess, so I merely inclined my head, more deeply than I
would have done otherwise, and hoped it would be sufficient.
To my surprise, the countess extended her hand and addressed
me in lilting English. â€śMiss Lestrange, you are quite
welcome.â€ť Her voice was reedy and thin, and I noted she was
well-wrapped against the evening chill. As I came near to
take her hand, I saw the resemblance to Cosmina, for the
bones of the face were very like. But whereas Cosmina was a
woman whose beauty was in crescendo, the countess was
fading. Her hair and skin lacked luster, and I recalled the
many times Cosmina had confided her worries over her auntâ€™s
But her grey eyes were bright as she shook my hand firmly,
then waved to the couple standing in attendance upon her.
â€śMiss Lestrange, you must meet my companion, Clara--Frau
Amsel.â€ť To my surprise, she followed this with, â€śAnd her
son, Florian. He functions as steward here at the castle.â€ť I
supposed it was the countessâ€™ delicate way of informing me
that Frau Amsel and Florian were not to be mistaken for the
privileged. The Amsels were obliged to earn their bread as I
should have to earn mine. We ought to have been equals, but
perhaps my friendship with Cosmina had elevated me above my
natural place in the countessâ€™ estimation. True, Cosmina was
a poor relation, but the countess had seen to her education
and encouraged Cosminaâ€™s prospects as a future
daughter-in-law to hear Cosmina tell the tale. On thinking
of the betrothal, I wondered then where the new count was
and if his absence was the reason for Cosminaâ€™s distress.
Recalling myself, I turned to the Amsels. The lady was tall
and upright in her posture, and wore a rather unbecoming
shade of brown which gave her complexion a sallow cast. She
was not precisely plump, but there was a solidity about her
that put me instantly in mind of the sturdy village women
who had cooked and cleaned at our school in Bavaria. Indeed,
when Frau Amsel murmured some words of welcome, her English
was thwarted by a thick German accent. I nodded cordially to
her and she addressed her son. â€śFlorian, Miss Lestrange is
from Scotland. We must speak English to make her feel
welcome. It will be good practise for you.â€ť
He inclined his head to me. â€śMiss Lestrange. It is with a
pleasure that we welcome you to Transylvania.â€ť
His grammar was imperfect, and his accent nearly
impenetrable, but I found him interesting. He was perhaps a
year or two my elder-â€”no more, I imagined. He had softly
curling hair of middling brown and a broad, open brow. His
would have been a pleasant countenance, if not for the
expression of seriousness in his solemn brown eyes. I
noticed his hands were beautifully shaped, with long,
elegant fingers, and I wondered if he wrote tragic poetry.
â€śThank you, Florian,â€ť I returned, twisting my tongue around
the syllables of his name and giving it the same inflection
his mother had.
Just at that moment I became aware of a disturbance, not
from the noise, for his approach had been utterly silent.
But the dog pricked up his ears, swinging his head to the
great archway that framed the grand staircase. A man was
standing there, his face shrouded in darkness. He was of
medium height, his shoulders wide and although I could not
see him clearly, they seemed to be set with the resolve that
only a man past thirty can achieve.
He moved forward slowly, graceful as an athlete, and as he
came near the shadows of the torches and the fire played
over his face, revealing and then concealing, offering him
up in pieces that I could not quite resolve into a whole
until he reached my side.
I was conscious that his eyes had been fixed upon me, and I
realised with a flush of embarrassment that I had returned
his stare, all thoughts of modesty or propriety fled.
The group had been a pleasant one, but at his appearance a
crackling tension rose, passing from one to the other, until
the atmosphere was thick with unspoken things.
He paused a few feet from me, his gaze still hard upon me. I
could see him clearly now and almost wished I could not. He
was handsome, not in the pretty way of shepherd boys in
pastoral paintings, but in the way that horses or lions are
handsome. His features bore traces of his motherâ€™s ruined
beauty, with a stern nose and a firmly-marked brow offset by
lips any satyr might have envied. They seemed fashioned for
murmuring sweet seductions, but it was the eyes I found
truly mesmerising. I had never seen that colour before,
either in nature or in art. They were silver-grey, but
darkly so, and complimented by the black hair that fell in
thick locks nearly to his shoulders. He was dressed quietly,
but expensively, and wore a heavy silver ring upon his
forefinger, intricately worked and elegant. Yet all of these
excellent attributes were nothing to the expression of
interest and approbation he wore. Without that, he would
have been any other personable gentleman. With it, he was
incomparable. I felt as if I could stare at him for a
thousand years, so long as he looked at me with those
fathomless eyes, and it was not until Cosmina spoke that I
â€śAndrei, this is my friend, Miss Theodora Lestrange from
Edinburgh. Theodora, the Count Dragulescu.â€ť
He did not take my hand or bow or offer me any of the
courtesies I might have expected. Instead he merely held my
gaze and said, â€śWelcome, Miss Lestrange. You must be tired
from your journey. I will escort you to your room.â€ť
If the pronouncement struck any of the assembled company as
strange, they betrayed no sign of it. The countess inclined
her head to me in dismissal as Frau Amsel and Florian stood
quietly by. Cosmina reached a hand to squeeze mine.
â€śGoodnight,â€ť she murmured. â€śRest well and we will speak in
the morning,â€ť she added meaningfully. She darted a glance at
the count, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw
fear in her eyes.
I nodded. â€śOf course. Goodnight, and thank you all for such
a kind welcome.â€ť
The count did not wait for me to conclude my farewells,
forcing me to take up my skirts in my hands and hurry after
him. At the foot of the stairs a maid darted forward with a
pitcher of hot water and he gestured for her to follow. She
said nothing, but gave me a curious glance. The count took
up a lit candle from a sideboard and walked on, never
We walked for some distance, up staircases and down long
corridors, until at length we came to what I surmised must
have been one of the high towers of the castle. The door to
the ground-floor room was shut. We passed it, mounting a
narrow set of stairs that spiralled to the next floor where
we paused at a heavy oaken door. The count opened it,
standing aside for me to enter. The room was dark and cold
and the maid placed the pitcher next to a pretty basin upon
the washstand. The count gave her a series of instructions
in rapid Roumanian and she hurried to comply, building up a
fire upon the hearth. It was soon burning brightly, but it
did little to dispel the chill that had settled into the
stone walls, and it seemed surprising to me that the room
had not been better prepared as I had been expected. I began
to wonder if the count had altered the arrangements,
although I could not imagine why.
The room was circular and furnished in an old-fashioned
style, doubtless because the furniture was
oldâ€”-carved wooden stuff with great clawed feet. The bed was
hung with thick scarlet curtains, heavily embroidered in
tarnished gold thread, and spread across it was a moulting
covering of some sort of animal fur. I was afraid to ask
But even as I took inventory of my room, I was deeply
conscious of him standing near the bed, observing me in
At length I could bear the silence no longer. â€śIt was kind
of you to show me the way.â€ť I put out my hand for the candle
but he stepped around me. He went to the washstand and fixed
the candle in place on an iron prick. The little maid
scurried out the door, and to my astonishment, closed it
firmly behind her.
â€śRemove your gloves,â€ť he instructed.
I hesitated, certain I had misheard him. But even as I told
myself it could not be, he removed his coat and unpinned his
cuffs, turning back his sleeves to reveal strong brown
forearms, heavy with muscle. Still, I hesitated, and he
reached for my hands...
What do you think about this review?
No comments posted.
Registered users may leave comments.
Log in or register now!