Idleburg’s Doppleganger Affair
© Neil Riebe 2002
In the movies, Peter Cushing played both Dr. Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein. Two characters who lived about the same time. Theoretically, if we brought them to the same place, we might end up with a story like this...
Van Helsing prided himself in being patient with people. However, this hagged tooth, stubbly chinned mob yanking his arms behind his back, waving hot torches in his face were quite another issue. They smelled of hogs and peat. Their peasants’ raiment probably haven’t been scrubbed across a washboard in Lord knows how long. These were the restless villagers of Idleburg. The same village clustered under the canopy of the darkest forest in all of Styria.
“A doctor I am,” Helsing tried to explain over their snarls. “A Dr. Van Helsing. Not this -- who was it again?”
“Dr. Frankenstein!” Their leader bellowed. “How many times do I have to tell ye?”
“We give ‘im enough arguin’!” whinnied a churlish, wild haired woman.
“He looks like him, therefore he is him!”
“I have proof,” Van Helsing called out to their reason. “In my right breast pocket is my card. Within my inside coat pocket is a letter addressed to me.”
The leader pinched his bulldog of a face in a knot of determination, reached in with his meaty paw, pulling out said letter. His eyes darted back and forth, appearing glassy.
“Oh, goodness me,” Van Helsing sighed. “The poor brute can’t read. I imagine none of you can read,” he called out again. For once they fell silent, exchanging nervous glances.
“Oh, he is a liar! Like his father, the Father of Lies, Satan!”
The frenzy re-ignited. The brutish village headman tore the letter, causing a look of pain in the poor Doctor’s countenance as he watch the letter from Lady Caroline fall to the mud in tatters.
When one thinks of Italy, wine and pasta come to mind. Feisty dark haired girls tanned by the Mediterranean sun. Rome. About the only thing that might cause a moment’s pause in one’s breath was the stern eye of the Vatican. But if your sins were confessed, and your heart’s right with God, not even the Holy Fathers can dampen the spirits. With that said, obviously a counterpoint is on its way, and here it is: near the border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a place that seemed cursed. It was up in the mountains, a village called Caporetto. In a couple of more decades it will become the site of some of the most brutal battles fought by man. At present it was a stark village swept by icy gales and choked by thin high altitude air. The people kept close to their homes. For what screeched across their ears, and rattled their shutters at night were not always voices of the winds. The wise kept their crosses near their hearts, and a ready prayer on their lips.
There was one man, a stranger to these parts who feared not the dark places. In fact they seemed to welcome him, making it suspicious that he may be no more than a ghoul himself. Folks who saw him never forgot his gaunt frame, swallow cheeks, and hawkish nose. Ask the portly wife of the shopkeeper, Stella Vittorio. Stella was the first to speak to him. He entered with a flourish, swung off his top hat, revealing gray hair combed straight back. His eyes were blue and as hard as stone. When he turned to her she felt reduced to putty. His very presence had such an aura about it the other patrons became deathly quiet, and anxious. Also unnerving was his clothes. He was dressed as dapper as an aristocrat. An aristocrat without an entourage? Indeed, suspicious.
“Good afternoon,” he spoke hastily. “I am here for some provisions. Bread. Cheese. A bottle of Brandy if you got it. Lantern oil. Blankets. Have you any of these?”
“Y-yes,” she said. “You must be new in town.”
“Hardly. I’ve already been here for three weeks.”
“Three --! Where have you been staying, sir? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all. I’ve been residing out that way.” He aimed his cane towards the window where they had a perfect view of the Valle di Fantasma -- the Valley of the Ghosts. It was a rock strewn gorge that looked despairingly gray during the day and menacingly shadowed at night.
“Down there? There’s nothing down there.”
“If you would fetch my provisions,” he insisted.
Stella sent her twelve year old son to fetch the stranger’s things. A stack of coins, more than enough for the bill was laid on the counter. “May I ask your name,” Stella said.
“If I am to give you my name I will first require yours.”
“My name is Stella Vittorio.”
“Then mine is Victor Frankenstein.” He clicked his heels and nodded a bow of greeting. It was very Teutonic of him. He took his things and she prayed never to see the man again.
Frankenstein found a deep crevice in the rock walls that formed the Valley of the Ghosts. It descended into the earth and opened up to many chambers that served well for a workshop, study, and sleeping quarters for himself and his assistant, Carlo. Carlo was a derelict from the streets of Caporetto. He was a couple inches shorter than the Bavarian scientist, but exceptionally broad shouldered and barrel chested. A perfect Neanderthal of a man to do Frankenstein’s grunt work. And dull-witted and attentive enough to listen to the doctor wax on and on about his latest theories, such as this one:
“The Undead, my simple friend, I fear may be my last refuge to harness the secret of life after death. If I am ever going to get this heap of flesh,” he tossed a gloved hand to the corpse upon the operating table, “to maintain it’s vitality, there’s no other choice.”
“But you have beaten death,” Carlo said. “You have many times, you said. First there was the one you brought to life, and fell into the acid. Then there was the one you brought to life, but burned up in your old castle. Then there was the time you brought yourself back from the dead.”
Frankenstein stood bolt upright from the table. Carlo cowered as the doctor approached, and shook when he put his hand on his shoulder. The poor, stupid brute chuckled depricatingly, his muddy eyes tearing for mercy.
“Have you really been listening that closely all this time to what I have been saying?”
Carlo bobbed his head vigorously.
“You don’t know how good it is to have someone finally pay attention to what I say. You may be as ignorant as dirt, but you’ve shown me more respect than a whole host of my so quote colleagues. It also shows you have a spark of intelligence. You should be happy!”
“I am, Doctor! I am!”
“There, there,” Frankenstein patted Carlo as though he was his own boy. “Why you shake so? Did you fear that I might harm you? You needn’t fear me. I would never hurt you.”
In truth Frankenstein ignited into a rage at his makeshift equipment on several occasions. How was Carlo to know if the jaws of such a rage would come around to snap him?
“Now,” Frankenstein spun on his heels and returned to his corpse upon the table. “As you correctly pointed out, I have successfully brought life from death. But each time some idiotic circumstance, or some band of ignorant fools destroys my work. If I were to incorporate the power possessed by the Undead, this would not be a problem. My experiment can
regenerate itself from the ashes with the merest trickle of blood. My own if need be.
“But, here comes the center of our problem -- how to seize the Undead. For this I have developed several theories. One -- What is it, Carlo?”
The Doctor’s assistant pointed with a startled finger towards a skull set on a small end table beside the exit. The fleshless head belonged to another former simple hearted assistant, Hans. If the humble reader recalls, Hans was the young man who loved the crippled girl Christina. To save her honor, he chose the guillotine for the charge of murder brought against him rather than reveal their time together on the night of the murder. That’s the nutshell of a very long story.
His spirit materialized above the head, revealing a youthful face, upper body and arms, and nothing more. Carlo had seen this bushy-haired apparition many times, but couldn’t for the life of him get used to it.
“Doctor,” the spirit of Hans spoke. “There is a man who is going to die in the village of Idleburg.”
Frankenstein frowned at the ghost. “How does that concern me?”
“The villagers believe this man is you.”
“Poor fellow,” Frankenstein said with little interest.
“It hardly seems fair, does it? An innocent man dying in your place.”
“Would you rather it be me?”
“Well, no!” the ghost said in his boyish tones. “But you can’t just let him die.”
“Maybe you can spirit from city to city in a blink of an eye, but for me it’s a two day’s ride by rail. The man will be dead by then.”
“Not necessarily. The Burgomaster is getting tired of the lynch mobbing and insisted on a proper trial. There will be time.”
“But my work!” The Doctor bit his lip. “Oh, very well!” he declared abruptly. “I can’t have you floating there moping at me. Carlo, put this cadaver on ice and keep out the vagrants. If I’m lucky I’ll be back within a week. And Hans, wipe that smirk off your vaporous face. This is tough enough as it is.”
“I’m not smirking, Doctor. I’m proud. I knew you wouldn’t let an innocent man down.”
Frankenstein grumbled. He vowed to himself to iron out once and for all if he was going to be ruthless or honorable. It was becoming too difficult being both.
Lady Caroline was an English girl, blond, fair complexion with the cutest little dimple in her chin. It made her seem more a girl of ten than a young woman of nineteen. She followed her aunt, Aunt Lavinia, to Austria. Lavinia married one of the Habsburg dukes. She was also a cousin to the Princess Royal, Queen Victoria’s daughter, wife of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia.
Caroline was far enough away in lineage to any of the European thrones which made it permissible for her to accept Van Helsing’s courtship. She knew this unspoken fact to be true that part of the reason her family was so keen on her accepting the Doctor’s hand in marriage was so they would have an expert in the supernatural under their roof. Besides, the doctor was well educated, possessed an upstanding reputation, charming with company, and sensitive with courtly matters. Plus he had earned a respectable enough income, so it wouldn’t be a step down socially to bring him into the family.
His luggage arrived ahead of him earlier in the evening. Caroline and Lavinia assumed the doctor himself could not be far behind. They prepared his room at the estate, chatting as they did so.
“Tell me, Caroline,” Lavinia said, “has it been any concern that you and your fiancé are so far apart in age?”
“What is this, Lavinia, you getting cold feet on my behalf?”
“Why, no! I’m only concerned about your needs. I mean, in this day and age, ladies of our standing rarely have our feelings taken into consideration, as we get doled out as marriage pawns. Eventually you’ll find yourself alone again, and at a very inconvenient age I fear.”
“The doctor strikes me as one of those rare people who will probably out live just about everyone around him. When he hits a hundred I’ll be seventy. By that time either of us could die any day.”
“There’s also the other issue. He is a very devout man, and you, you little heathen, are a bit of a pragmatist. To not put too fine a point on it.”
Lady Caroline merely shrugged. “I see it as adding spice to the marriage.”
“You mean arguing. I can see by the devil’s gleam in your eye you can’t wait to sink your teeth into him.”
“Oh, really!” Caroline chuckled. “I didn’t mean arguing. I meant what I said -- spice. Besides, Van Helsing is more of the type who is secure enough in his beliefs to not require everyone around him to be like minded. I can’t see how we could ever stoop to endless verbal battles.”
A servant rapped on the door and burst in breathless. The two women expected to hear that Van Helsing has arrived. Instead he related bewildering news that Van Helsing was in one of Idleburg’s grungy jails awaiting trial. His escort on the other hand did arrive, and in bloody tatters after narrowly escaping the villager’s wrath himself. Apparently Van Helsing got wind of another vampire residing in the hills near Idleburg. The escort told him to never mind the information. They had
the next train to catch. Van Helsing insisted on stopping by one of the Idleburg pub’s to glean some information. Reluctantly the escort acquiesced, and no sooner they walked down the street the people seized them, calling Dr. Van Helsing a Dr. Franken-somebody.
“And the escort had the nerve to return without his charge?” Lavinia sputtered.
“My Lady,” the servant said, “he had no choice. He was disarmed, and the mayor of Idleburg himself wants this Franken-person hung from the highest tree. There was no one to protest to.”
“I’m going,” Caroline declared.
Lavinia protested to little effect. The girl loaded up in a carriage and took along a handful of armed horsemen and proceeded immediately to Idleburg.
Van Helsing’s trial came and went quickly. The prosecution was not concerned whether or not he committed the crimes charged to him. Just whether or not he resembled the man who did. A grisly series of charges they were.
This Frankenstein spent a month at an abandoned wood cutter’s hut. The hut itself had a speckled history. After the original fellow who owned it, a hard working church-going man, disappeared without a trace in the forest, a harlot moved in and set up shop. Once the Idleburg authorities discovered her activities they sentence her to a public hanging. She cheated them by taking poison. They buried her in the earthen basement. The local church hung a warning from the door.
“This is a place of sin. Touch not the boards that bind the door and these windows, lest you wish to invite God’s wrath, or Satan’s company. Whichever comes first.”
The Mayor said tear the hut down. It would be simpler. The Vicar of Idleburg feared the property was of such sinful disposition, any contact, even stepping upon its unkept lawn would put a stain of evil on the God-fearing like a leprosy. A deeply religious community, the Mayor accepted the Vicar’s advisement and pressured the creditors to relinquish their claim to the abandoned lot. There the hut stood under the shadow of the trees on the northern tier of the town in plane sight from the road leading to Graz.
This was where Frankenstein entered the picture. He took up residence in this hut. Since no one legally owned it, no one could evict him. Passers-by spoke of eldritch lights flickering through the slats that covered the windows. A smell of ozone hung in the air. The Idleburgers knew nothing of ozone. They assumed it was the odor of demon spirits. The cracklings and poppings from within the hut could only be the activity of these demons.
Graves were desecrated. Frankenstein no doubt was the culprit. Nothing like this was happening till he arrived. Then the unthinkable happened. The villagers began seeing the harlot walking the streets again. It appeared to have fresh arms sewed in place of her former limbs which decayed. A witness, a busy-body middle-aged woman named Freida, was an
example of two dozen people who testified.
“She peered into my window,” Frieda said. “It was the hussy buried in the wood cutter’s shack. I could see the stitchin’ through her rags. It looked like fresh parts were sewn on to replace the ones that decayed.”
Only one man actually witnessed Frankenstein in the cemetery. The grave digger Grieves.
“I saw him myself wrap a body in a white sheet and hoist it over his shoulder. Once he was gone I checked the headstone to see who it was. It was poor Elsie Götter. She was only just buried, if you recall. Born July 5, 1867. Died four weeks ago from today.”
Elsie was 22, and very pretty. The jurors naturally were all the more prejudiced against Van Helsing because of it. The harlot creature was burned. The ashes scattered. Frankenstein escaped. The jury passed sentence: “Guilty.”
The Judge scheduled the sentence to be carried out in the sight of God, an hour after church. The authorities fetched Van Helsing from his cell, and for what felt like an eternity, was brought out into the fresh air. The Vicar and the Judge waited at the gallows. Once the noose was looped about Helsing’s shoulders the Vicar spoke.
“As Moses cleansed idolaters from the Israelites by God’s command at the point of the sword, as the Holy Spirit struck Ananias and Sapphira dead in the House of the Lord at the feet of Saint Peter for blasphemy, we here perform a similar service unto God. May He see our desire to be rid of sin in our midst, and quell what evil that hangs over the wood cutter’s hut.”
“Your Holiness,” Van Helsing muttered to the Vicar. “If you only knew the irony. I too have devoted my entire life to God.”
“Silence,” the Vicar hissed. To the villagers he cried out, “Let us pray! Oh, Lord -- ”
A carriage proceeded by a half a dozen uniformed horsemen roared down the road and circled around the mob along the outer edge of the village square. The villagers went mute at the sight of the Habsburg family crest emblazoned upon the door of the carriage. It came to a halt, and out came Lady Caroline. Her troops surrounded her and the crowd parted
like the Red Sea before them as they ascended the steps of the gallows.
“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded. Caroline protectively wrapped her arms around Van Helsing.
“You’re outside your jurisdiction,” stated the Judge. He listed the crimes the jury convicted Van Helsing for committing.
“They have mistaken me for someone named Dr. Frankenstein,” Van Helsing added.
“Is that a fact,” Caroline acidly said. “Does this look like the countenance of a man who could commit such crimes?”
“Even Satan himself hides himself in sheep’s clothing,” the Vicar said.
“Oh, really? Have you seen Satan lately? Maybe at the last costume ball?”
“Caroline!” Van Helsing scolded her. “Don’t insult their beliefs.”
“How can you defend them?” She turned back to the Judge. “You said the face of my fiancé matched the face of the perpetrator. Just by seeing is enough. You also said the perpetrator rifled the graves of the dead. Then wouldn’t he have calluses?” Caroline wrenched one of Van Helsing’s gloves from his hand. “Look at his palm. Feel it. It is soft.”
The Judge and Vicar peered with the greatest reluctance.
“Touch his palm,” Caroline commanded them. “If seeing is all it takes to make him guilty, then seeing and touching should declare him innocent!”
The Judge felt Van Helsing’s palm. There was no denying Caroline’s point.
“This is immaterial!” he roared. “Over a hundred witnesses attested that his face matched the man who committed these crimes. What chances are there that two faces from two people who are no way related look exactly the same?”
On cue another carriage skirted the mob. It paused. The passenger peered without getting too close to the window, then tapped his cane from inside for the coachman to continue.
“Stop that coach!” cried the Mayor.
The carriage was duly stopped, and the passenger extracted to the villagers’ shock. Indeed it was possible for two unrelated men to look exactly alike.
The mix up was quickly set right. Dr. Frankenstein was put into custody and Dr. Van Helsing released. There would be no second trial because as far as the authorities were concerned Dr. Frankenstein was tried irregardless if he was there or not.
Van Helsing interceded.
“Is this justice, gentlemen? First of all no proper evidence had been supplied connecting this man with the cadaver you saw walking your streets.”
“It’s only logical,” the Prosecutor replied.
“Logic is not evidence. Besides, what laws are there on the books regarding necromancy?”
The prosecutor pursed his lips. The Vicar stated that it was a punishable sin.
“Then let God punish the sin. Until you make it a crime you can’t pass sentence.”
“We still have him for grave robbing and grave desecration,” the Prosecutor said.
“Is that a capitol crime?”
“Then what is the sentence for grave robbing?”
“Two years prison, maximum.”
“And how many graves did your witness actual see him dig?”
“Only the one. Elsie Götter’s.”
“Then two years is the most you can legally punish this man. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.” Van Helsing glared at the Judge, Prosecutor, the Mayor and the stalwart Vicar. “You were going to kill someone not for his crimes, but out of fear. I suggest a new trial. I will stay in Idleburg and oversee this trial. If anything worse than the two years is meted out to this man I’ll make certain word of this reaches the ears of the Emperor, Franz Josef himself.”
Considering he was going to marry Lady Caroline, the Idleburg authorities had no doubt Van Helsing could carry out his threat. They complied with his instructions.
Arm in arm, Van Helsing and Lady Caroline made their exit from the square. But before they did, Van Helsing stopped to have a final word with Victor Frankenstein.
“It’s ironic,” Victor stated coldly. “I came here to save you. It only goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished.”
“Try not to take it that way,” Van Helsing gripped his arm. “I’m sure you had no doubt you would be caught eventually. Right now you have two people on your side, and who will make certain the court for once conducts itself fairly and by its own rules. That has to be worth at least something. Although, it is remarkable how are likenesses are so identical. It’s as if Providence had a hand in this affair right from the beginning.”
“I think it’s just a bloody coincidence,” Caroline said.
“I agree with you,” Frankenstein nodded to her.
Van Helsing looked from Frankenstein to his fiancé. “I’m surrounded by cynics! What is this day and age coming to?”
Caroline laughed, enjoying the spice of their relationship.
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