THE GRAY NUN
By Nataly Von Eschstruth
Translated from the German by Lionel Strachey
When I was a young man I once made a foreign journey, betaking myself to the royal court of X. on affairs of state. In those days politics would take strange turns, not of unmixed delight, and so it happened that my mission was prolonged well into the winter, and kept me at X. until the carnival season. But at this I did not repine, for to pass a winter in a beautiful climate and amid the fascinating society of a court seemed a welcome change to my enthusiastic, pleasure-loving young soul.
The reigning sovereign had a predilection for masked balls,—a traditionally favorite amusement at the palace, I was told—and accordingly several fancy dress festivities were enacted on the royal premises during the carnival. The first I was unable to participate in because of an inflamed eye, and therefore awaited the second with all the keener anticipation.
In the becoming costume of a Prussian officer in the army of Frederick the Great, and with the agreeable sensation of being specially well disguised beneath my mask and safe from recognition, I mingled in the gay throng of the dancers and enjoyed to the full the charm of the brilliant and delicious event. An exquisitely graceful little water-nix had conquered my heart. The champagne was bubbling in my blood, and in wild spirits I was pursuing the fleeing Undine into an adjacent apartment.
Suddenly I stopped as though spellbound, and found myself staring into a pair of dark eyes, black as night, which were rigidly fixed upon me. Standing aloof, in a corner of the room, I saw a nun. Her long gray garment reached to the ground, and lay about her very feet in folds like a train. Her arms hung straight down, the hands being concealed in the loose sleeves. White linen bands covered her head and chin, and rendered even her mouth invisible, while her forehead and the upper part of her face were protected by a black velvet mask. And the blackness of those eyes that penetrated me was so intense that scarcely were any whites discernible.
An indescribable emotion ran over me as I stood under the ban of an evil power, as it were, returning the look of that strange figure. I had forgotten Undine. Drawn by some invisible force, I approached the nun with mechanical footstep.
"Why, fair mask," I accosted her with a bold laugh, "are you alone? Surely you know that for dancing and love two are needed!"
Briefly, like a Chinese idol, she nodded her head in assent; a thrill seemed to pass over her wonderfully slender shape; yet she did not budge.
I became more venturesome from a sudden feeling as of fire rushing through my veins.
"You may be vowed to seclusion, beautiful bride of Heaven, but to-day the convent walls have released you, to-day you are of the world and the flesh, to-day you are mine!"
Thus I cried aloud, forgetting in my excitement that I was in a country where my mother tongue was only spoken and understood at the German legation.
In a moment it occurred to me: Did the mask know German?
To my astonishment, she gave an immediate sign of intelligence by gliding, silently as a shadow, another step in my direction, and her biasing eyes appeared to kindle with merriment. Had she a veil over her eyes? It almost looked so and this extraordinary measure of precaution challenged me the more strongly to overcome her reluctance to being known.
"Do you understand me?" I asked.
She nodded in the same brief, jerky manner as before.
"Do you know me?"
Similarly she answered by negative motions of the head. I stepped up close to her with the question:
"But will you not know me and love me? Come into my arms, and let us dance!"
Then something happened that at the moment I found surprising and extremely startling, yet which I took for a mere carnival freak, while later on I could scarce review the occurrence with any degree of clearness.
The nun threw her arms about me abruptly and almost desperately, and whirled me into a frenzied dance. I felt no body between my arms, and did not hear the rustle of her dress; I only saw those enigmatic dark eyes, which glowed near, very near, my own. And in mad career, regardless of the musical time or of the tune played, my curious partner tore around the room with me faster and faster, and with ever increasing fury. Her arms gripped me tighter and tighter and I was threatened with complete loss of breath in the wild race. Of a sudden I received a violent blow, resembling an electric shock, from each of her hands on my shoulders, felt myself all at once liberated, and staggered faint against a pyramid of plants. Boisterous laughter sounded on my ear; some other masks had surrounded and seized me, exclaiming:
"Look at the fine gentleman! He is out of his mind, dancing about the room like a madman, quite alone!"
I opened my eyes and looked all around. What had become of my partner?
Not a sign of her was to be seen, although this other room was likewise very large, just then not well filled with people.
"Have I been dancing alone?" I gasped, tearing the mask off my burning face.
"Quite alone! Did you imagine it was with your sweetheart?" was the mocking, noisy reply.
I was deeply annoyed. "Nonsense!" I cried. "You are all in the conspiracy! Where has the nun gone? It was no lady at all, it was a man in disguise!"
They laughed still more, and some whispered behind fans that I must be drunk.
Strange sensations invaded me. Had a joke been played at my expense? Had a member of the German legation dressed in female clothes, and in the height of his whimsical caprice danced with me in that insane fashion? Were the guests in the secret, and were they amusing themselves—as the freedom of the carnival permitted—with teasing a foreigner? Yet surely the mysterious nun must be discoverable. My knees were trembling from a weakness I was unable to account for, but I collected myself, and while various thoughts coursed through my brain for a solution of this carnival prank, I hastened with feverish speed through rooms and galleries in quest of the nun. But in vain. I espied neither herself, nor met anyone who had seen her. The lackeys and doorkeepers assured me in perfect good faith that they had seen no nun of any sort.
"The costume is one of which His Majesty does not approve," I was informed in the cloak-room. "It is considered irreverent to appear at balls here in the spiritual garb of a nun or a monk, and therefore it is not done. It would certainly have been observed by us had any lady or gentleman transgressed against the prevailing usage."
"Then perhaps I may have mistaken for a nun some other mask, who intended in her gray suit to represent Twilight or Care," I excused myself hesitatingly, though I had an accurate eye for dresses, and could have registered a solemn oath that the mysterious unknown was even wearing especially authentic claustral attire. No one, however, could by any effort remember having noticed a costume anything like that described by me.
"Are there any secret passages to any of the rooms and galleries which are the scene of tonight's festivities?" I asked a doorkeeper. He looked at me in surprise, and answered:
"All ways of communication were opened today because of the crowd of guests, but for safety's sake guarded and watched more carefully than usual. Only the tapestried corridor running the length of the great colonnade to the royal apartments was left unguarded, since in that place there is no possibility of improper intrusion."
A new idea flashed across me. The spot on which I had first set eyes on my nun was at the entrance to that corridor. Might not a member of the royal family have elected to make me, as a novice in this foreign court society, the subject of a merry jest? No doubt the nun was a man in disguise, and the young princes and dukes were probably capable of pouncing on the victim and dancing him to death.
My confusion was perhaps very diverting, and the secrecy of the few spectators of the joke, who were, of course, initiated, was quite praiseworthy.
They asserted not having seen a nun at all, and laughed at me for having rushed round the room alone, like a lunatic, Obviously there was no further room for doubt, this explanation and no other was valid. Why had I not thought of this before!
So I joined in the hilarity of the others and made the best of my discomfiture. In any case, the manner in which my partner had dismissed me betrayed a pair of powerful masculine fists! My shoulders, on which she had come down so vigorously ached as if they were broken, and I was still unable to conquer entirely a peculiar sensation of uneasiness. But while I was pursuing my investigations the clock struck twelve, the company unmasked, and gaily flocked toward the Supper rooms. I felt particularly entitled to refreshments, and in the course of my indulgence in the good things of my selection, my faintness—which was more astonishing to my robust, muscular young self than any carnival joke in the world could have been—passed off completely. I was as happy and lively as before, and enjoyed the remainder of the ball as much as I had the beginning. I tried to dismiss the episode from my mind. For a few days I felt a dull pain in my shoulders, which annoyed me at night also, and disturbed my sleep. The image of the nun haunted me, and the sombre, penetrating eyes were present to me in my very dreams. This vexed me, and I mentally abused the royal gentleman in every key who had pushed his joke rather too far.
A week passed, and the court chamberlain issued invitations for the third masked ball at the palace. I purchased a sailor's dress, and on the evening of the ball tripped up the marble stairs in the best of spirits. It had in the meanwhile occurred to me that I had perhaps imbibed too much, and that the prince in nun's clothing had perhaps observed my condition, and made me his victim for that reason. But I rejected that proposition. In the first place, I had not taken much to drink; certainly two or three glasses of champagne and lemonade were not worth mentioning when I remembered what quantities of alcohol I had frequently absorbed in my university days in Germany. I was a brave boon companion, and capable of consuming a great deal. So how should a few paltry little glasses make me so unsteady on my feet as to collapse in dancing a fast gallop? Absurd! I was sure enough of myself, and sufficiently well brought up in social customs, to know how much one may drink at a court ball. No—I was convinced that I had not been intoxicated, but on this occasion I resolved to exercise special caution, and to be strictly temperate, in the event of the disguised perpetrator of pranks again attempting to make the German stranger the butt of his impudence. This time he should meet his match; I would keep my head clear and my feet steady enough to venture a dance with him. The constantly suspicious attitude of my mind, to be sure, interfered with my pleasure very considerably. I was in a too observant mood to float on the topmost wave of enjoyment, and besides an extraordinary disquietude had seized upon me, a contraction about the heart that was quite new to me, such as sensitive people undergo before a storm or in anticipation of momentous changes of fortune. I wandered about restlessly. Numerous though the merry masks that flitted around me, that nun's indescribable black eyes did not appear, and no effort was made to involve me again as the hero of another frolic. Time was dragging heavily. I glanced at my watch, and wished the supper hour might be near. The finger only pointed to half past eleven, so that I must still possess my soul in patience for half an hour. It was a lovely, mild, moonlight night; the doors to the tapestried passage and the colonnade had been thrown open, and I concluded to take a breath of the fragrant air and a rapid view of the illuminated town in its festive brilliancy of a carnival night.
A female pierrot dances past me with Don Juan, and, with a laugh, throws a handful of confetti in my face. I retaliate—a few phrases are exchanged—I look after her for a moment—and then turn to the entrance of the corridor, to get out into the colonnade.
I am rooted to the ground!
Standing aside in a corner, on the very same spot as before, is my nun, staring at me with the same unfathomable eyes as a week ago!
Where had she come from?
Out of the ground? Or had she slipped in through the door during my banter with the pierrot?
She had come through the door, of course.
I am utterly amazed. The same costume. The same joke. How clumsy of the prince to repeat himself, I am inclined to ignore the impertinent young gentleman, and pass him proudly by—yet—strange—again I am attracted irresistibly, as by a supernatural power, held by those black orbs. I am quite certain of my wits this time: the dress is really the forbidden costume of a nun, and, so far as I can judge, exact in every particular. On her breast hangs a large cross, which is especially conspicuous. It is of dull gold, with emeralds and pearls inlaid, of peculiar shape, and certainly antique. The pious nun seems to have regaled herself with excessive haste at some sideboard, since the white collar and the front of the gray bodice show oblong dark stains, as though some beverage had been spilt.
"Well, fair mask," finally remark in a mocking tone, although my heart is beating furiously, "you have been waiting for me here, I presume?"
She nods slowly and solemnly.
"Do you imagine, by chance, that I wish to dance another hurricane with you?"
Again she assents, but more emphatically.
"Then," say I, ironically, "see where you can find a new blockhead, my muscular fairy! My shoulders are not well yet!"
Her arms move—hands there are none visible in the long, roomy sleeves—they are stretched out to me as if in mute appeal. A cold shiver runs down my back, I know not why.
"If I dance with you again," I angrily exclaim, "you will not fare quite so well as last time! I am firmer on my feet to-night than I was last week!"
She presses her arms to her breast, something like a tremor agitates the gray shape, and her head is slightly raised. Her position and demeanor, though she utters not a word, denote intense longing.
The blood rushes to my head—I must go a step nearer to her—I must!
"If I dance with you, it will be only on one condition!"
With a profound sigh her bosom heaves, her arms fall to her side, her body is humbly bent forward as if in complete surrender, and as if to say: Ask what you will!
"My condition is that you afterward reveal yourself."
She nods stiffly, like a marionette.
"Swear to it!"
She raises her arm for the oath, but the gray folds still conceal her hand.
"Woe betide you if you deceive me!"
She shakes her head, and repeats the passionate gesture of entreaty. Her slender form trembles with feverish impatience, and the wonderful eyes seem to plead, in extreme urgency: Come quickly!
I put out my arms—
Once more does the terrible woman rush at me, once more am I held in that mad embrace, once more—on the wings of the wind—do we dash round the room! And once more are all my senses lost in the fiendish whirl!
I attempt to struggle, would pit the abounding strength of my youth against the woman and subdue her. In vain! I can think, I can act, no longer. My whole being is in a swoon, and I am conscious of nothing but two icy lips pressed upon mine with a vehemence calculated to draw my very life out of me.
A shudder seizes me, and the fear of death, and then—again that blow on my shoulders—
I feel as if a pair of iron clamps had been taken off me and I had been freed, and I sink down upon a sofa.
A laughing, jeering crowd surrounds me, shouting:
"The sailor is crazy! He has gone out of his mind!"
Have I again been dancing alone in public?
I jump up in a rage, and exclaim, as I toss back my dishevelled hair from my burning brow:
"Abominable trickery! Let me pass! Let me get my hands on her, and unmask her!"
Something rings on the floor. It has fallen from my hand, hitherto clenched and just now opened. Triumphantly I snatch it up, exulting:
"Her cross! Ha! that shall be my clue!"
On this occasion, too, no trace of the mysterious nun was to be found. It was at first superciliously assumed, as before, that I must be drunk or insane, but my serious mood and energetic investigations soon altered that notion. I might myself have doubted my mental soundness had it not been for the cross in my hand, which I at once recognized as being that worn by the nun, and had not a lackey finally confessed to having beheld the strange figure. He was coming from the colonnade with a tray of refreshments when he saw me in conversation with her. The mask had something familiar about her, he said, but he could not remember where he had seen her before. He had been a servant in the palace for forty years.
Nobody thought of a spectre; on the other hand extravagant speculations became rife of a conspirator being at work. It was rumored the king had originally intended to wear a sailor costume.
Of course, it was him the uncanny visitor had designs upon. In view of the fact that the political horizon was very dark and clouded at that time, the conjecture was perhaps not altogether phantastical, and for this reason the report quickly reached the ears of the king and the royal family. I was promptly summoned before His Majesty, and it gave me a sort of revengeful pleasure to relate the incident to that august person. For I was still fully persuaded that some young member of his family had played this obnoxious trick upon me.
The king nodded thoughtfully upon my frank declaration that, according to my researches, the enigmatical female could only have come from the royal apartments.
Said his Majesty:
"May I ask you, my dear Baron, to show me the cross you found?"
I put it into his hand.
For a moment the king stared upon it speechless. Then he turned it over, and ejaculated, roughly almost under the emotion of his violent surprise:
"Great God—why—it is—!"
And he pointed to the small, delicately engraved initials, surmounted by a crown, in the middle of the cross. Very pale and with heaving breast he went on:
"A nun, a gray nun, you say? What would the object of such a joke be? and how—how should this cross come back among the living? Baron, come with me, I must request your confidence and secrecy!"
We passed through several rooms, and then arrived at a narrow gallery whose walls were hung with portraits of royal personages. The king came abruptly to a halt, and without himself looking up indicated a certain picture:
"Observe that painting! Do you see the same Cross there that you have in your hand?"
Involuntarily I uttered the loud cry:
"Why, that is she! Holy Heavens! It is my nun!"
"The cross—compare the cross!" urged the king, his slender, white hand trembling with agitation.
A frosty current ran through my veins as I compared the pictured cross with that in my companion's hand. It was the same—not a doubt of it—and the eyes, too, were the same, as also the dress and the whole figure were unmistakably those of the gray nun I had danced with. Yet in those conspicuously large, deep black eyes lay not an expression of peacefulness and mild resignation, but a world of passionate feeling. Having assured the king of the identity of the cross, and he having informed me that it was an ancient heirloom of which no duplicate existed, he bade me accompany him further.
Arrived in the antechamber to his apartments, the king gave an order to one of the attendants on duty there. He walked up and down the room for a few moments in visible excitement, and then, stopping before me, and looking at me searchingly, he asked:
"Have you ever, in the course of your life, met with a manifestation of the supernatural?"
I was so bewildered and nervous that I scarcely could remember enough French to reply:
"May it please your Majesty, I have not."
"Do you believe in the possibility of the dead returning?"
"Not in the sense of their coming as apparitions. I always was, still am, a skeptic on the point of ghost stories in general, nevertheless I am a Christian, and I believe and know that we continue to live after death."
The king stared at me mechanically:
"You are a Protestant, and you say you are a skeptic. Curious—only you saw the apparition—it was revealed to no one else?"
"Then your Majesty is of the opinion that this is actually a case of a spectral apparition?"
"Certainly. It seems much more plausible than open theft. This very cross I myself—"
He interrupted his sentence as he turned to the door, through which, with profound obeisances, entered two ladies in waiting—probably the queen's. His Majesty addressed one of them in French, no doubt to enable me to participate in the conversation:
"You were present, Madame M., when Princess A. was laid in her coffin seventeen years ago?"
A low curtsey was the affirmative reply.
"And you also, Madame U.?"
"I had the honor, your Majesty, of rendering her royal highness the last earthly services."
"You remember perfectly what dress the deceased was buried in?"
"Quite well, your Majesty. It was the regular dress of the Order of Gray Sisters, of which her royal highness was a member."
"Do you recollect whether she took any ornaments to her last resting place?"
"Excepting the golden cross which your Majesty hung round her neck on the day she took the vow, no jewelry was put on the princess. The duchess even drew the little sapphire ring from her royal highness' finger, to keep it as a remembrance and wear it herself."
"You are absolutely certain that the cross went into the coffin? You could swear to it?"
"I could do so with fullest conviction, your Majesty."
"Would you recognize the cross?"
"To be sure I should."
"Is this it?"
"Good Heavens—it is! On the back there ought to be the initials of her royal highness!"
"Here they are," said the king, reversing the cross. The old woman shrank back appalled.
"Then, your Majesty, the vault has been broken into!"
"Possibly it has. The matter shall be investigated. I am much obliged to you, ladies, and earnestly request you will both preserve unconditional silence as to our present interview."
"Well," said the king to me, after the ladies in waiting had withdrawn, "how do you account for this cross being here in my hand, considering it was put into the coffin? You think the vault may have been pillaged? That, I believe, is out of the question. The object of a carnival freak, which could have been perpetrated just as easily in any other dress, is far too slight to make such a horrible offense as the violation of the dead worth while! But I intend to have the vault examined, and beg, my dear baron, that you will attend. For the present, good night."
I spent a dreadful night, torturing my sleepless brain for a solution of the riddle, and being forever haunted by the nun's dark eyes. It was late when I woke.
Some hours after, the coffin was opened in the presence of the king, whose surmise proved correct. The bolts on the coffin were intact. The gold chain was there, safe round the princess' neck. But the cross was gone. There was not the remotest sign of violence.
How I got out of that vault, I do not know. I remember feeling faint, and being supported by two court officials. I am unaware of what happened next. It was the only instance in my life in which my system had so entirely given way. A serious illness was apprehended, but my strong constitution won the day. For a long time my mind was in a precarious state.
When I had recovered, the king sent for me.
"Are you still a skeptic?" he asked in a grave voice.
"No, your Majesty, I am convinced now."
Whereupon the king himself deigned to communicate to me the particulars relating to the golden cross.
Princess A. was a daughter of one of his cousins, and she was their fifth child. The duchess, a very pious woman, made a vow before the birth of her sixth child, that if it was a boy, her youngest daughter should be dedicated to the service of the church and take the veil. A son was born, and Princess A. henceforth was educated for the profession of a nun in becoming retirement and seclusion. Unfortunately, however, the natural traits of the girl seemed to be entirely in opposition to that reverend calling. An irrepressible vivacity of spirit, an intense coveting of worldly joys and pleasures characterized her, and the more she was separated from the world the more ardent grew her desire to live in it. Heartrending scenes of resistance and tears were enacted, and the reigning sovereign felt so much pity for the spirited young creature that he attempted to save her from her fate of being immured in convent walls by offering to apply to the pope for a dispensation releasing the mother from her promise. But the duchess desperately combated this idea. Her wild laments, that to break her vow would entail her forfeiture of eternal salvation, her protestations, her tears, her entreaties, at last prevailed upon the princess to join the Order of the Gray Sisters. For a short space all seemed to go well. The fervid heart of the royal nun was apparently beating placidly, in the quiet claustral surroundings. But during the winter the duchess fell sick, and the young bride of the church was called to her bedside. Princess A. had remained with her mother for several weeks, and about that time the carnival season began. Masked balls were given in the palace, and while the horns and violins were sounding in the ballroom Princess A. lay on her knees in the throes of dreadful despair, tearing her hair in furious longing for that lost paradise. She at last succeeded in bribing a chambermaid to secretly procure her a fancy dress. If it was to cost her immortal soul, once she would dance and be young and happy! The plot was betrayed, and the angriest reproaches were poured out by her parents upon the perjured, rebellious nun! Princess A. was locked up, and was to be removed to the convent the next day. However, as the festivities in the palace were reaching their height that night, the unhappy young nun lay expiring in her room. She had taken poison, although the report was spread in the capital that failure of the heart had caused her death. How she came into possession of the poison no one ever discovered. While she was writhing in terrible agony her half-crazed mother put a cup of milk to her lips as an antidote. She dashed it passionately aside and the spilt milk left stains on her dress.
How hard it was to die! Again and again she tore her black hair. Again and again she uttered the bitterest imprecations and the fiercest cries for a taste of youth and happiness. At length she stood up, straining her ears for the music in the ballroom.
And then she screamed aloud:
"Oh, I must dance once! I must kiss once! Let me be happy once! I cannot die before I dance! Let me go—let me dance—let me—"
She drew herself up to her full height, her eyes glowed like live coals, she took a few steps towards the door—
"I must dance—let me dance!" she gasped, and fell stiffly forward on the floor—dead.