The Countess

Chapter 1

January 1, 1611—The boy and his father came at dawn to shut me in, arriving from the village below the castle with their donkey and their cart and their load of tools.  I was awake some hours, watching the light at the window go from black to faintly blue, so I heard them making their way across the snowy courtyard below the tower, a couple of dark figures with their heads together, whispering and shivering as they looked up toward my windows as if I were some kind of monster for men to cross themselves against. 

The father spoke to the boy in words too soft to hear, but their breath, heavy from exertion or dread, lifted from their faces and spun away in the winter cold.  I stood back in the darkness and did not let them see me, for I wanted no one to know I had been watching.  I refused to be afraid.  I paced from the window to the door and back, warming my hands by the fire and then, growing too warm, moving to the window again for a breath of cool air.  When I looked again they were gone.  Two lines of footprints marked the path they took—one large, for the father, and a smaller one for the boy.  The patient donkey stood in his traces and stamped his small hooves, a puff of white breath rising from his mouth as well, just another of God’s miserable creatures.

How every waking moment pains me until I may see you once more, Pál, speak to you once more.  It grieves me that I do not have even a drawing of you or your sisters to keep me company in my prison, for the walls of my chamber are bare, having been stripped of their paintings and mirrors and weavings, any small luxury, by the palatine’s soldiers when they brought me up from my dear little house, my kastély, in Csejthe village two days ago.  In the tower of the vár there is now only the bare plaster thick with frost, a rough wooden table and chairs set with a single candle, a straw mattress on the floor for a bed.  Altogether the place feels and smells of a stable.  A piece of stale bread sits untouched on the floor, waiting for the servant to come up and fetch it back again.  I do not sleep.  I try to read but am restless and pace the small space of my room instead, listening for footfalls on the stair outside my door.  If only I had some embroidery, some bright bit of cloth, I might find an easier way to pass the time, but the palatine ordered the guards to take my pins and needles, my blades and scissors, as well as the mirrors and any bit of glass he could find, saying he would leave me no easy way out of my prison.

The palatine was generous enough to leave me a few books, Meister Eckhart’s Abgeschiedenheit, Aristotle’s Politics, though I already know them by heart.  “Quemadmodum enim perfectum optimum animalium homo est, sic et segregatum deterius omnibus; gravissima enim habens arma.  Homo autem non habens arma nascitur prudentie et virtuti; quibus ad contraria existentibus, pessima maxime.  For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends.”  Never have these words seemed more true to me than they do now, as I sit isolated from all the world at the whim of György Thurzó, a man so clearly without virtue himself.  Virtue seems to be lacking in too many of the men I have known in my lifetime, Thurzó most especially.

It was only two days ago, just after Christmas, when Thurzó snuck into Csejthe vár in the middle of the night with a troop of King Mátyás’s guards and a scroll with King Mátyás’s stamp.  In the caverns under the keep, with the servant girl still warm at my feet, the palatine ordered his soldiers to take me to the tower and didn’t seem to hear when I asked why he had turned against me, why he was giving credence to the falsehoods spread by my enemies.  To think that I loved him once, that I took him into my bed!  Then he ordered his soldiers to lead the servants away—the three old women and young Ficzkó—and there was a sound of crying in the dim light, the smell of blood and candlewax.  I could hardly see for anger.  He handed me the paper to read, the one with the king’s seal, but I crumpled it and threw it at him.  Lies, I said.  Without another noble witness to testify against me, neither Thurzó nor the king have the authority to imprison me, but the palatine seemed unconcerned with such niceties.  “I see the rule of law no longer applies in Hungary,” I said.  “What is the king giving you to turn your back on your friends?”

The gray bags under Thurzó’s eyes, which had always made him look so vulnerable, now hardened into little pillows of stone.  “Our friendship is the only thing saving your life right now, my dear,” he said.  “I suggest you say nothing that may make your situation worse than it already is.”  Then he lay down his sentence, there in the dim caverns beneath Csejthe, condemning me in perpetuis carceribus.  A lifetime between stones.  He left a company of his own soldiers in the keep, left me here under lock and key, taking my servants off to Bicske to stand trials for my sins, as he called them.  What sins are those? I asked, but he turned away and would not answer me.  I heard his carriage driving away as they took me up to the tower.

This morning I waited a long time, but the boy and his father did not come.  For a moment I wondered if perhaps the palatine had thought the better of his decision and sent them away again, but then their voices were outside my door, greeting the guards in the local dialect.  I arranged myself to receive them into my room, determined to offer them my forgiveness as one forgives the executioner before one’s head is struck off.  I touched my hair, my face, did my best under the circumstances to look presentable.  In a little while there was a sound of someone working at the door, and after a few minutes they had it off its hinges and set aside.  The hallway was dim.  A single lamp gave off a thin yellow light, but I saw the boy and his father come forward and kneel in the doorway and stepped toward them with my hand raised in friendship, but at the gesture the guards threatened me with their weapons raised and ordered me back.  The bigger guard, the one with the winestain on his cheek like the slap of a great hand, growled that I was not to approach the boy or his father or to make any motion of witchcraft or incantation in their direction, or the guards would finish me where I stood.  “You wouldn’t dare,” I said.

He smiled, showing all his teeth.  “Who is here to stop me?” he said.

The blood rushed to my face, and I dropped my hand.  Then I could see that the masons were not offering obeisance but beginning their work, mixing the mortar and sorting out the stones in little piles, the stones that will make my prison from this day forward, for my old friend the palatine tells me that I will not leave this tower alive.

The guards ordered me to sit in a chair while the masons went to work.  They sealed the windows first, closing the small slits in the wall that showed me the valley of the River Vág, the villages and farms that were a gift to me from your father on our wedding day.  The mason set the stones in a circle, shutting out the light little by little, working until only a small hole remains, just large enough for me to put my hand through.  Through it, if I stand on a chair, I will see little but the color of the sky, the faint cold stars, a distant smudge of hills I will never cross again.

When they finished with the windows they retreated to the hallway and began the slow work of shutting the door to my chamber, closing me in stone by stone like Antigone in her cave.  I watched them at their task.  They were villagers from Csejthe, the man and his son, dressed in clean linen shirts and pants and brown hemp waistcoats.  The father chose each stone carefully to fit with the one below it, frowning as if he saw something in the stone he did not like.  He would not meet my gaze, though I sat not three feet away.  The boy must have been ten or eleven years old, but he was a strong worker, obeying his father’s every command, fetching this or that tool, mixing the mortar in a bowl.  Once in a while he peeked in my direction, as if his curiosity had gotten the better of him.  He had the face of the Infant himself, straw-colored hair and long-lashed eyes, the lashes throwing small sooty shadows across his pink cheeks.  He reminded me in many ways of you, my love, with your shyness and your serious face, though you have your father’s fierce brow and proud Nádasdy nose.  I wiggled my fingers at the boy and smiled.  “Ako sa voláte?” I asked in the local dialect.  What is your name?  I have learned two or three phrases of the language in my years in this part of the country, through many years of taking peasant girls and boys into my house as servants.  My accent was not good, but the boy did not seem to notice.  He stared at me with wide eyes, curiosity and fear mingled on his face.  “Luki,” he said, his voice high as a girl’s still.

Teší ma,” I answered.  Pleased to meet you.

I was about to see if my guess was true and ask him his age when the father reached up and slapped the boy hard across the face, saying something rushed and angry.  I recognized only one word: škrata.  Witch.  The father pointed at the stairs and barked an order, and young Luki took his leather strap back down the stairs, tears wetting his cheeks.  Were it not for the palatine’s guards, I would have slapped the mason’s ugly red face myself to exact revenge for that unnecessary blow.  Instead I clenched and unclenched my hands and looked away as if I had noticed nothing.  I would bide my time.  I am not some madwoman who does not know when and how to act, no matter what the palatine and Megyery and Ponikenus say about me.  I retreated into the new darkness of my bedchamber, where I waited for my solitude to begin.  The walls they lay will harden like my heart.

Then the mason’s son was back with his load of stones, and the father set them tight and true.  The man is a master craftsman, and the door should hold until they take it down to let me out, or else to carry me out.  A gap in the stones about the span of two outstretched hands will allow the servant to pass me food and drink and take away the night-jar, but otherwise I am completely without help or comfort.  I am left to wash my own clothes, and clean my own room, and make up my own hair.  I will not be allowed to attend church, to walk in my vineyard, to meet you or your sisters in your far-flung homes, to hear a word of kindness spoken.  In a sudden rage I cursed the guards, the palatine, the mason, picking up bits of smoldering charcoal from the fire and flinging them through what was left of the door, my mouth tasting of copper.  “Now, now, madam,” said the winestained guard, speaking as one speaks to a bad-tempered horse, “you cannot do us any harm out here.”

Looking around my room for a weapon, for anything, I grasped a burning branch from the fire, holding it out toward the straw mattress.  My hand was steady and strong.  “I can set the house alight,” I said.

“You would not.”  His lips formed a thin line.

“I would.  Better to burn than remain your prisoner.”  My limbs seemed to move without my consent, as if I were looking at myself from the outside.  The flames leapt off the branch and spun away in the cold air, but the guard did not move from his post.  He must have been weighing the seriousness of my threat against the lies he heard about me: that I am a whore, a witch, a vampire who bathes in the blood of maidens.  After a moment he simply shrugged and smiled, turning away to speak a low word to his companion.  He no longer saw me standing there with the burning branch in my hand.   I dropped my arm.  I am used to many reactions from many people—some pleasant, some unpleasant—but disregard is not one of them.  I am not used to being invisible.

Tears stung at the edges of my vision, but I would not cry.  The guards would be elated, I suppose, if I burned the castle down, for then they could go home and forget all about me, tell their drinking companions in the taverns of Bicske about the time they saw the Beast of Csejthe immolate herself out of spite.  The actions of a madwoman and a criminal.  As I’m a sane woman after all, I placed the branch back on the fire.  I will not give the guards, or the palatine, the satisfaction of being rid of me.  Not yet.

Instead I sat at my table and with shaking hands began writing these pages to you, Pál, so that you may know something of your mother besides the lies the palatine and the king and your tutor tell you.  So you may know that even now, your mother thinks of you and prays for you.  That she hopes you may become a better man than those she has known, and loved, during her own life.

Now I can see little but the mason’s hands at work, bits of his clothing through the stone gap.  I can no longer hear what the guard says in his low voice to the boy and his father, who are packing up their tools, their footsteps growing fainter as they walk back down the stairs of my tower, into the open air.  The flames of the fire ebb and flicker.  I will not have another.  My poor servants will no doubt be submitted to torture, forced to condemn me to save themselves, because the palatine will not be merciful.  He has not a drop of pity in him.  He has damned me to prison for the remainder of my days—this tower, these walls, these few books, this bed.  And myself, a woman alone, with nothing to do but contemplate her life.

I have done nothing that was not my right by blood and title, not to the palatine, not to anyone else.  Erzsébet Báthory, widow of Ferenc Nádasdy, daughter of the most ancient noble house in Hungary, is not a witch or a madwoman, a murderess or a criminal.  She has no intention of quietly accepting her fate.