THE JOURNAL of BRAM STOKER
Where to start? There is so much to tell and precious little time to tell it—but I know when all things changed. By the time one particular week came to a close, I would be healed, our dear Nanna Ellen would be gone, and a family would be dead. It started innocently enough, with a little eavesdropping. We were but children—me, seven; Matilda, eight—and yet that fall season was never to be forgotten. And it began with only two words.
October 1854—“Buried alive,” Matilda said again, her voice low. “That’s what she said. I heard her true.”
Although she was one year older than I, I spent many of my waking hours in Matilda’s company, particularly when I found myself confined to my room, as I was today. We were standing at my window, and Matilda was pointing towards the harbor. “Ma said the man was diseased, and when he pled for help, the men who answered only dug a hole in the earth and pushed him in. What type of person does it take to do that? How could others participate in good conscience?”“Buried alive,” Matilda said again, her voice low. “That’s what she said. I heard her true.”
“Ma said no such thing,” I told her. Following her finger with my eyes, I tried to see through the fog rolling off the water.
“She did. If you ask her about it, I am sure she would deny saying it, but she told Pa when he returned home from work not more than twenty minutes ago. I came to you straightaway.”
I tried not to smile, for I knew Matilda only spun such a tale in order to boost my spirits, but the corners of my mouth rose nonetheless, and she smacked me on my shoulder. “Now you’re mocking me.” She frowned, turning from the window.
“Where did you say this happened?”
She didn’t answer, staring instead at the far wall. “Matilda? Where did this occur?”
With a deep sigh, she returned her gaze to the window. “At the cemetery behind Saint John the Baptist Church. She said they buried him amongst the suicide graves.”
Matilda grew frustrated. “I’ve told you about them before; they’re hidden at the far east end of the cemetery, just beyond the wall, in constant shade. Anyone who takes their own life is buried there, as well as thieves and criminals and the like. There are few markers or crypts, mostly just raw earth covering hundreds of dreary graves. It’s not consecrated ground, either, so the buried will never know peace. They spend eternity damned.”
“So why bury a sick man there?”
“You mean, why was this particular sick man buried alive there?”
“If they buried him alive, he was, in fact, murdered,” I said. “He would be entitled to burial as anyone else, in blessed earth.”
“You cannot hide a body amongst the common graves, but bury him amongst the suicides and he will never be found.”
A coughing fit came upon me then, and I turned my head away until it dispelled, then said, “If Ma knows of this, she would tell the authorities. She would make it right.”
“Maybe the authorities already know and they simply don’t care. One less sick man walking the streets may not be of concern.”
“What did Pa say of all this?” I asked her.
Matilda crossed the small room to my bed and settled down on its corner, her finger twirling around her long, blond locks. “At first, he was silent, considering the story. Then he said, ‘Things are even worse in Dublin,’ before returning to the newspaper, giving it not another word.”
“I don’t believe any of this; you’re just spinning tales again,” I said, the smile edging my dry lips.
“What is true?”
We both turned at once to find Nanna Ellen standing in the doorway with a lunch tray in hand. She entered the room with a skillful grace, sliding across the floor more than walking, her steps silent and sure, and placed the tray on my night table.
Matilda’s eyes met mine and silently told me not to say a word about our conversation—not that I had any intention of doing so. “Nothing, Nanna.”
Nanna Ellen’s eyes narrowed as she stared first at me, then at Matilda, and back again before returning to the tray and pouring a hot cup of tea. “The talk between you two is horrid. Men buried alive in unmarked graves? Really. This is not the topic of adults, and most definitely not suitable for the likes of you. And why are you even out of bed? You’re going to catch your death standing near that window. And then what? I suppose we’ll have to dig a little hole amongst the suicide graves and plant you along with the other sick.” She gave Matilda a wink. “Think you can find time in your busy day of gossip to show me where to find this place and possibly fetch a shovel?”
I scurried back to my bed and found my way under the covers. “You wouldn’t,” I said.
Nanna Ellen tried to hold a straight face. “I most certainly would. I’ve got my eyes set on this room of yours; mine is getting a bit cramped with the baby in there.” She picked up the little bell from my night table and gave it a ring. “There would be no more of this, then, would there? Sounds like a perfectly happy world to me.”
I tried to pluck the bell from her fingers, but she proved too quick for me; my reach only found air. “You know I don’t like to use that; Ma insists that I do.”
“So you don’t believe me, either?” Matilda frowned.
Nanna Ellen placed both her hands upon her waist and sighed. “I do not believe for an instant that the good people of Ireland would stand by and watch as a living man was pushed into an open grave to be forgotten. I think your imagination is getting the better of you. I’m sure you heard something, but it was not that. Maybe your time would be better spent in the kitchen helping your mother with dinner rather than skulking around corners to glean conversations not meant for your young ears.”
“To be sure, she said exactly that.” Matilda pouted.
Nanna Ellen sighed and sat on the edge of the bed beside me, her slender fingers reaching out for my forehead. I shrunk back at her touch, her skin like ice.
“You have a fever again, young man.” She poured water from the pitcher on her tray into the basin beside my bed and moistened a cloth, wrung it out, and placed it across my scalp. “Lie back,” she instructed.
I did as she asked, then said, “Gray.”
“Your eyes—today, they are gray.” And they were, too, a dark gray, reminding me of the thick storm clouds that had filled the harbor’s sky only two days before. “Yesterday, they were hazel. And, the day before that, they were blue. What color will they be tomorrow?”
She looked down upon me with these eyes and tucked her curly blond hair behind her ear. Most days, she wore it up, but today it was down, hanging just below her shoulders.
I have often reflected on the beauty of Ellen Crone. At the age of seven, I had no such thoughts; but as an adult, I cannot deny her allure. Her skin glowed, flawless as a fresh coat of snow, not a single blemish or line, not even around her eyes or mouth. When she smiled, the whiteness of her teeth astounded. We often joked about her age—she along with the rest of us. She joined our household in October of 1847, only weeks prior to my birth—right after Miss Coghlan took leave due to health issues, explaining the arthritis in her hands had made the act of caring for a child unbearable. Miss Coghlan had been with the family through the births of both Thornley and Matilda and had been expected to stay another year or so, long enough for Ma to find a replacement. Her early leave‑taking came at a difficult time; Pa spent most of his hours at the castle, due to the start of the famine, and Ma was in no condition to interview replacements, being only weeks away from my birth. Ellen appeared as if sent by God—through word of mouth alone, she had heard about potential employment and arrived on our doorstep with nothing more than a small bag in her possession. She claimed to be fifteen at the time, an orphan who had spent the past five years in a household looking after the children of her providers—a boy and a girl, aged five and six—only to lose the entire family to cholera the month before. The mother of the house had been a midwife, and Ellen explained she had aided her with dozens of deliveries; she would be willing to offer her services in exchange for lodging and a small stipend for a short period of time, at least until after my birth, while Ma had time to recuperate. Ma and Pa had no other alternatives available to them and they welcomed Ellen Crone into our home, where she immediately became indispensable.My birth in November of 1847 was a difficult one. I was born breech, the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, at the hands of my father’s cousin, a prominent Dublin doctor, who believed I was stillborn since I did not utter a sound.
My birth in November of 1847 was a difficult one. I was born breech, the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, at the hands of my father’s cousin, a prominent Dublin doctor, who believed I was stillborn since I did not utter a sound. Uncle Edward Alexander Stoker declared that no heartbeat was found beneath my blue skin. But Ellen insisted I was alive, snatched me from him, and went to work breathing for me, her lips on mine for nearly three minutes, before I finally coughed and joined the world of the living. Ma and Pa were amazed, and Uncle Edward claimed this was nothing short of a miracle. Ma later told me she was sure I was dead in the womb because I rarely kicked; as a mother of two, she had real experience to draw upon and she felt certain. For that reason, she hadn’t allowed Pa to settle upon a name. It wasn’t until I was breathing and proven alive that she agreed to the name Abraham, my father’s namesake, and took me into her arms for the first time.
In later years, Ma told me Nanna Ellen had looked worn and haggard that night—appearing as if she, too, had given birth and that it had taken every ounce of her strength. The moment I was tucked safely at Ma’s side, Ellen had retired to her room and did not emerge for nearly two days, much to the dismay of Pa, who spent hours at her door in an attempt to coax her out, as he needed help with both the children and Ma. For those two days, Nanna Ellen went unseen; she finally emerged on the third day without a single word about the episode, and simply returned to her household duties. Pa would have sacked her had he a replacement, but there was none.
In those first three days, my condition only worsened, and Pa feared I would not live another night. My breathing came in short gasps and became choked with fluid. I had yet to cry, and my eyes were unresponsive to any stimuli surrounding me. I would not take the breast. I would not eat at all. Ellen moved my cradle into her own room and remained with me for all waking moments, forbidding the others from seeing me—she insisted I needed rest. They reluctantly obliged, and on my fifth day, around two in the morning, my cries rose through the house for the first time, cries loud enough to wake Matilda and Thornley, who also joined in with cries of their own. Pa helped Ma to Ellen’s door, and when she opened it with my little form swaddled in her arms, everyone knew the danger had passed and I would live. Ma said Ellen looked far older than her years at that moment, worse than she had after my birth, worse than she had ever appeared since. After handing me to Ma, Ellen Crone continued down the stairs and out the front door into the dead of night. She did not return for two full days.
When she did return, she was her youthful self again, cheeks flushed with color, eyes radiant blue, and with a smile on her lips for the ages. Pa didn’t scold her for leaving this time, for my condition had worsened while she was gone, and somehow he knew she could help me as she had on both occasions prior. He returned my cradle to her bedroom, and there it remained as Ellen locked the door with the two of us secured inside. She would emerge with my health waxing and hers waning. This pattern would repeat dozens of times in those early years—she would nurse me back to health, then vanish for a few days only to re‑ turn in good health and take charge again. What transpired behind her closed door was never revealed, and Ma and Pa did not ask, but her eyes told the tale—the deepest blue when her health proved strongest, pale gray shortly before she would take leave.
I stared up into those now gray eyes, knowing she would be leaving again soon.
“Perhaps you should focus on your own health and not these imaginary shadings in my eyes, which are no doubt just reflecting my clothing. Perhaps if I don a red dress, they will flame as red as Mr. Nesbitt’s down the way after a night at the pub?”
“You’ll be leaving again soon, won’t you?”
At this, Matilda perked up. “No, Nanna. You mustn’t! You promised to sit for me so I can draw your portrait!”
“But you have dozens already—”
“You promised.” She sulked.
Ellen went to her and ran a finger over her cheek. “I will be gone only a day or two, at most. Don’t I always return? And then I will sit for you for yet another portrait. While I’m away, I need you to look after your brother and help your mother. She has her hands full right now with Baby Richard. Do you think you can keep house in my absence?”
Matilda nodded reluctantly.
“Okay, then. I best return downstairs and begin preparations for dinner.” She placed her chilly hand upon my forehead again. “If you don’t improve, I will have to call upon your Uncle Edward.”
At this, my stomach twisted into a knot, but I said nothing.
From DRACUL by Dacre Stoker and JD Barker, to be published on October 2, 2018 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker.