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William Black's tale of more than 200 years of Richmond history from a vampire's point of view. Part 2

Interview with a Vampire - Part 2


Can you give us any glimpses of what Lee was like? Aristocratic and a good dancer. A fine conversationalist, quite a historian. You're a Richmonder through and through and yet you sound a little bitter about the Confederacy. Did you have a position at the time? I took no sides over the issues of the war, slavery, economics, states' rights. But the Confederates destroyed the one constant in my life, they destroyed that which I had known. The fools, they destroyed all that they had trying to keep it out of the hands of the Northerners. By burning Richmond? Jefferson Davis and his ilk had already evacuated the White House of the Confederacy, their White House. There was a skeleton staff left. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was one of them. Suspicion had begun to arise. Once unsuccessfully, we tried to free her by setting a small fire in the basement of the White House trying to get her out in the confusion. Unfortunately, it was discovered by another staff member and quickly extinguished before we had the chance. But there came a time in the spring of 1865, as the Northern troops waited to liberate Richmond that Bet found out the Southerners had uncovered Mary Elizabeth's role. And if they could hang Mary Elizabeth, they could hang Bet. Of course, all of this was of no significance to me, but I had sworn an oath to her great grandfather. So I went to rescue her as the Southern troops approached. It was a fierce battle. But I took her and planned to spirit her away, North to freedom. But before I could there came word that the Confederates had captured her father, Nelson, and were holding him - a trade, if you will. With the Northern troops coming close it was amazing that the Confederates were worried about such a small thing as revenge. But they were also worried about covering their tracks. Bonfires were being made of all the Confederate records and now the worthless Confederate money. The looting and burning was rampant. The fools burned everything they had, everything they owned, everything that was Richmond, everything that was left of the world I remembered. Because they didn't want the Northerners to have it, stupid fools. Giving Mary Elizabeth back was out of the question. I had the oath to carry out. You may not know that Richmond was clogged with wounded soldiers. It was something of a weigh station for wounded. They were plentiful and served my purposes well. The city was orange and wild and the skies glowed red with anger. In the mayhem, Bette raised an American flag over her house. Some enterprises still stood. Down in Capitol Square the painted ladies still plied their wares to soldiers who may or may not become prisoners by the dawn. It was down near Capitol Square they had the temporary brig where they were holding Nelson. I stole my way in and fed liberally. However, it was too late for me to see one man wielding a torch, swinging it at me. Then while I was incapacitated and reeling from the blow, this stout Southern soldier accosted Nelson and attempted to do him through the heart with a dagger. Before he could, I intervened, but in doing so set the place and myself ablaze. I pushed Nelson out, but I was trapped in the flames. How did you get out? I crawled out, inch by excruciating inch. Made my way down the streets which were flowing with liquor. You may not have known this, but they poured all the liquor out into the streets to keep it from the rioting mobs. People lay in the street and drank. One more poor pathetic soul reeling in the street drew no attention. My skin was black and smoking and all my world was pain. And even the blood of the few that I was able to latch onto was not enough. Could you heal yourself? Healing is not a quick venture. It was years, decades. For a while, I lay in an unsinged river house below the boards by day, drinking from rats. As the years wore on and I was able to regain some mobility, I had always kept some monetary store on supply in other places. I set myself back up with a household in Manchester and rarely left. It took many years before I reemerged, and it took the help of a man whose name you might recall: William Wortham Pool - W.W. Pool. Ah, the legend. I think it's funny that some people think he's the vampire. He was an accountant. Do you think accountants would make good vampires? Some can be real bloodsuckers. Pool wasn't. He was a good man. And what's more, he rarely questioned why my son and my grandson should so closely resemble each other and have the same signatures. He was a good man, and a loyal one. He mainly worked for the Bryans. The newspaper Bryans? Yes. Pool died in 1922. He and his best friend died on the same day. The whole city shut down, at least in Manchester. By then we were all one city, but the entirety of south Richmond, the banks, the shops, all of it shut down for their funerals. Was this around the time you reemerged? I began to reintroduce myself to society slowly. I still had the aid of Bet. She was old and a post mistress. She was a despised woman because everyone knew her role as a Union spy and hated her for it. The federal government gave her great power. People shunned her like a witch. I always thought we had a lot in common. So how did that help you get reintroduced to society? Bet had some friends. Ellen Glasgow was one. She was a lovely young woman, a bit disturbed, and overly sentimental to be sure, especially about that damned dog of hers. She insisted you call it "Mr. Jeremy Glasgow." A despicable thing. Then, of course, there was Cabell. James Branch Cabell. There was a dark soul if ever there was one. You know they tried him at William & Mary for being a homosexual. I had no idea. They were unsuccessful. He was acquitted. I won't say if they would have been right. When was this? This was common knowledge. Late 1800s. Long before those books of his came out. Long before he scandalized Richmond with "Jergen." He and I remained not great friends. Not all the killing done in Richmond was at my hand. Excuse me? One night ... he lived on Franklin, a considerable townhouse, very stately. One night walking home from the Commonwealth Club, a handsome, handsome young man met his death by grisly means, bludgeoned in the head - right in front of Cabell's house. Are you calling James Branch Cabell a murderer? Oh, I wouldn't be the only one. Of course, when the Pinkertons began investigating him - they had their suspicions about me as well. When he started pointing them in my direction I disappeared for a while. The investigation still led to his front door, of course, however the city fathers not wanting to see such a fine, upstanding young man of letters get thrown in with common criminals quickly made the matter go away. What has the 20th century been like for you? Quite dull, at least after the '20s, after 1918. That was a grim year indeed. That was the influenza epidemic. You said earlier that human ailments can infect you. They don't make life, or whatever this is, bearable. It swept through Richmond like the flood had nearlier 150 years earlier. Five hundred soldiers at Camp Lee died within weeks. By the time the third week of it hit, John Marshall High School was an emergency hospital. There were more than 1,000 lying ill, dying, more wondering when they would be struck. The railroad workers were struck, the coffins piled atop each other at Main Street Station. A grisly sight. It was a time of starvation for me. How did you live? I retreated, I starved, I wasted. I began to find hiding places. At first, I found a home in the numerous bootlegging tunnels and Civil War tunnels and train tunnels, dark, unexplored corners where I could sleep undisturbed. Most of them were connected in one way or another if you could persevere the darkness and lack of air. Fortunately, I could. It was in the '20s, after that train tunnel collapsed on Chimborazo Hill, that one of the most horrid events of my dying life happened. The tunnel was collapsed, but not yet bricked over and I didn't have the fear of burial alive like the would-be rescuers. My curiosity led me to the tragic scene, a mistake. I lit a torch in the closed, dusty space and found the engine, its unfortunate master dead at the controls. I also heard the moans of trapped and terrified men further down the tunnel knowing they were buried alive and about to die. I thought to end their suffering, a true act of compassion, since I had no desire to feed and was unable to bear them through the narrow passages in the tunnel. Then I heard the crunching. A horrible sound like the snapping of branches in a wet marsh. Turning the torch, I could see a shadowy figure under the work-cars, hunched over a fallen man. As I gained closer, it spun and faced me. Draped in rags, and horribly scarred, the face of Jean Malfant looked back on me, the flesh of a dead man hanging from his ragged teeth. His eyes were dead, black and empty. There was nothing left of him but a desire to feed. He was naught but a predator. I recoiled in disgust, flinging the torch at him and running in the other direction. Uggh. What happened then? He burned, I suppose. I hope. I ran. It shook me greatly. It still does. I wondered, is that my fate? To end up a vacant-headed eater of the dead? I chose to hide away from everyone and everything and I did, except I couldn't escape the one thing I feared most - myself. And I was too frightened of becoming like Jean to try to end my existence. You said you used hiding places. Where else did you hide? One of them was the Washington monument in Capitol Square, in the tomb. He wasn't using it. Another was Pool's tomb. A kind of a bitter irony there also. Are you familiar with the inscription on top of the tomb? Yes, actually, it's a local legend as you're well aware. The lion shall lie down with the lamb, that bit from Isaiah, right? But there's only the lamb on top of the tomb. But where's the lion? That's the creepy part of the myth. (Black smiles broadly.) What is it like to live in Hollywood Cemetery? I made it a very quiet place. The world was becoming an increasingly strange place of marbles and moving pictures and motorized vehicles and aeroplanes and skyscrapers. And I was an increasingly out-of-place element in it. I slept in Hollywood, feeding by the river, seldom venturing out for many years. I enjoyed my peace. I enjoyed being around the names, the monuments of those who I remembered breaking bread with, so to speak. It stayed that way for many years until one night. It was in the late '50s. Almost like the night I'd awakened from my haze of sickness to find my man Bowser besetting Jean Malfant. There was a great commotion in the cemetery and I would have none of it. It was a place of peace, a park, my home. I heard a yelling, a screaming. I was prepared to dispatch all of them and send them to the quiet that everyone around them was enjoying. There were three men in white sheets, one bearing a flaming cross. We had called them Whitecaps. You, I believe, call them the Ku Klux Klan. They were dragging a hapless unfortunate, who was the source of most of the noise, a large, young black man to the site of Jefferson Davis' grave. It mattered not to me. I was ready to finish them all. They had the audacity to defile my home with their noise, with their petty theater. I stole in closer. I grabbed one and quickly slit him ear to ear. He fell on the ground, the blood rushing out of him like a fountain, hot. It was enticing but I wasn't ready to feed yet. The two others spun on me and in doing so, dropped their intended victim to the ground. That was when he looked up at me and I recognized him. Who was he? I quickly lit into the other Klansmen, while the terrified man looked on, not knowing which of us to be more frightened of. He was probably wise. I asked him his name and he replied, "Bowser." I spared him and told him to go and doing so my oath was paid. I fed well on his two fallen aggressors, however the third disappeared into the night. After that, there began to be legends that spread around the city about a vampire that emerged from Pool's tomb and haunted the city and Hollywood in particular. I began to be annoyed quite often with VCU students, MCV students out for a lark. It was like, how would say ... fast-food delivery? But I soon grew tired of it and changed my address. So no, you won't find me there anymore. Unless I'm feeling particularly ... nostalgic. What do you think of modern-day Richmond? It's a sad shadow of what it was but I remain here perhaps because I remember what it was. We were the stage on which not only Shakespeare's drama but real human drama was acted out, where a nation was born. Now, all the drama takes place off stage. Richmond's a faded beauty, but still a beauty. I still love her gaslights and the scent of the magnolia and the feel of the cobblestones beneath my feet. You called our world uncivilized. How can you say we're uncivilized when you are indiscriminately killing and feeding like an animal? You seem to be the one with no conscience. Let me tell you a final tale. It's the tale of Andrew and David. When I emerged from Pool's tomb, I was ready to embrace the world again, reborn. I watched movies, loved film noir. I began to enjoy music. I even became enamored of the punk culture. It reminded me something of the Bohemians. I hung out at the old Village Cafe. I can remember the nights, at closing time someone inevitably would play "The Tide Is High." Blood is a tide also. The place was a smorgasbord of mad poets, drug addicts, prostitutes, students. It was a feast for the mind, and sometimes the body. You ask what is the difference between me and them. Why am I not the uncivilized one? I am the cursed one. They are too uncivilized to realize that they are blessed. There were two, their names were Andrew and David. They were slight of build, one dark-haired, one blond. One night, they stumbled across me feeding in an alley. As I whirled on them, I expected fear. But there was none. Instead, much to my horror, they wanted to be disciples. You asked if I had ever procreated. These two, I gave the so-called gift to show them the hell that I have become. One starved to death, unable to feed. The other watched the sunrise within a month. We mortals are creating our own hell? You have an affinity for that. Any advice for us poor creatures? Stay out of dark alleys. William Black, or whoever he is, spun a tale for me that night I'll never forget. In the days that followed, I pored over Historical Society documents, history books, birth and death registries. It was all there. William Black, born 1751, son of William Black, a Gov. Gooch appointee. The first burning of Richmond in 1781. Mary Elizabeth Bowser, the spy who served in the White House of the Confederacy and mysteriously disappeared. Elizabeth Van Lew, the Yankee sympathizer and spy. Edgar Allan Poe painting the words above the altar of the Monumental Church. Any careful researcher could have woven these facts together in such a fanciful manner. And that's all I might have concluded had it not been for the way the interview concluded, which is to say, I can't remember. All I remember is waking up, woozy and disoriented at the foot of Pool's tomb in Hollywood Cemetery just as the sun began to break over the city. Nearly unable to summon the strength to stand, I stumbled to my feet and raced toward the gates, too terrified to lift my own hand to my