"THE INVISIBLE EYE"
by Émile Erckmann & Alexandre Chatrian
IT was about this time, said Christian, that, poor as a church rat, I had taken shelter in the roof-loft of an old house in the Rue des Minnesängers, at Nuremberg.
I had made my nest in an angle of the roof. The slates served me for walls, and the roof-tree for a ceiling: I had to walk over my straw mattress to reach the window; but this window commanded a magnificent view, for it overlooked both city and country beyond. From it I watched cats gravely walking along the gutter, storks, with beak-loads of frogs, carrying food to their devouring young ones; pigeons with their tails spread fan-like, whirling above the depths of the streets below.
In the evening, when the church-bells called the people to the Angelus, resting my elbows on the edge of the roof, I listened to their melancholy song, and watched the windows lit up one by one; the good townsmen, smoking their pipes on the pavement; the young girls, in short red petticoats, and with their pitchers under their arms, laughing and chatting about the fountain of Saint Sebalt. Insensibly all these objects faded from my view; the bats came abroad in the dim air, and I lay me down to sleep in the midst of the soft quietude.
The old second-hand dealer, Toubec, knew the road up to my little den as well as I knew it myself, and was not afraid of climbing the ladder. Every week his goat's head, surmounted by a rusty wig, pushed up the trap-door, his fingers clutched the edge of the floor, and in a noisy tone he cried—
“Well, well, Master Christian, have we anything new?”
To which I answered—
“Come in: why the deuce don't you come in? I'm just finishing a little landscape, and want to have your opinion of it.”
Then his long thin spine lengthened itself out, until his head touched the roof; and the old fellow laughed silently.
I must do justice to Toubec: he never bargained with me. He bought all my pictures at fifteen florins apiece, one with the other, and sold them again at forty. He was an honest Jew.
This kind of existence was beginning to please me, and I was every day finding in it some new charm, when the good city of Nuremberg was agitated by a strange and mysterious event.
Not far from my garret-window, a little to the left, rose the auberge of the Boeuf-gras, an old inn much frequented by the country-people. Three or four wagons, loaded with sacks or casks, were always standing before its doors; for before going to market the countrymen used to take their nip of wine there.
The gable of this auberge was conspicuous for the peculiarity of its form: it was very narrow, sharply pointed, and its edges were cut like the teeth of a saw; grotesque carvings ornamented the cornices and framework of its windows. But what was most remarkable was that the house which faced it reproduced exactly the same carvings and ornaments; every detail had been minutely copied, even to the support of the signboard, with its iron volutes and spirals.
It might have been said that these two ancient buildings reflected one another; only that behind the inn grew a tall oak, the dark foliage of which served to bring into bold relief the forms of the roof, while the opposite house stood bare against the sky. For the rest, the inn was as noisy and animated as the other house was silent. On the one side was to be seen, going in and coming out, an endless crowd of drinkers, singing, stumbling, cracking their whips; over the other, solitude reigned.
Once or twice a day, at most, the heavy door of the silent house opened to give egress to a little old woman, her back bent into a half-circle, her chin long and pointed, her dress clinging to her limbs, an enormous basket under her arm, and one hand rightly clutched upon her chest.
The physiognomy of this old woman had struck me more than once; her little green eyes, her skinny, pinched-up nose, the large flower-pattern on her shawl, dating back a hundred years at least; the smile that wrinkled her cheeks, and the lace of her cap hanging down upon her eyebrows--all this appeared to me strange, interested me, and made me strongly desire to learn who this old woman was, and what she did in her great lonely house.
I imagined her as passing there an existence devoted to good works and pious meditation. But one day, when I had stopped in the street to look at her, she turned sharply round and darted at me a look the horrible expression of which I know not how to describe, and made three or four hideous grimaces at me; then dropping again her doddering head, she drew her large shawl about her, the ends of which trained after her on the ground, and slowly entered her heavy door, behind which I saw her disappear.
“That's an old mad-woman,” I said to myself; “a malicious, cunning old mad-woman! I ought not to have allowed myself to be so interested in her. But I'll try and recall her abominable grimace--Toubec will give me fifteen florins for it willingly.”
This way of treating the matter was far from satisfying my mind, however. The old woman's horrible glance pursued me everywhere; and more than once, while scaling the perpendicular ladder of my lodging-hole, feeling my clothes caught in a nail, I trembled from head to foot, believing that the old woman had seized me by the tails of my coat for the purpose of pulling me down backwards.
Toubec, to whom I related the story, far from laughing at It, received it with a serious air.
“Master Christian,” he said, “if the old woman means you harm, take care; her teeth are small, sharp-pointed, and wonderfully white, which is not natural at her age. She has the Evil Eye! Children run away at her approach, and the people of Nuremberg call her Fledermausse!”
I admired the Jew's clear-sightedness, and what he had told me made me reflect a good deal; but at the end of a few weeks, having often met Fledermausse without harmful consequences, my fears died away and I thought no more of her.
Now, it happened one night, when I was lying sound asleep, I was awoken by a strange harmony. It was a kind of vibration, so soft, so melodious, that the murmur of a light breeze through foliage can convey but a feeble idea of its gentle nature. For a long time I listened to it, my eyes wide open, and holding my breath the better to hear it.
At length, looking towards the window, I saw two wings beating against the glass. I thought, at first, that it was a bat imprisoned in my chamber; but the moon was shining clearly, and the wings of a magnificent night-moth, transparent as lace, were designed upon its radiant disc. At times their vibrations were so rapid as to hide them from my view; then for awhile they would lie in repose, extended on the glass pane, their delicate articulations made visible anew.
This vaporous apparition in the midst of the universal silence opened my heart to the tenderest emotions; it seemed to me that a sylphid, pitying my solitude, had come to see me; and this idea brought the tears into my eyes.
“Have no fear, gentle captive--have no fear!” I said to it; “your confidence shall not be betrayed. I will not retain you against your wishes; return to heaven--to liberty!”
And I opened the window.
The night was calm. Thousands of stars glittered in space.
For a moment I contemplated this sublime spectacle, and the words of prayer rose naturally to my lips. But judge of my amazement when, looking down, I saw a man hanging from the iron stanchion which supported the signboard of the Boeuf-gras; the hair in disorder, the arms stiff, the legs straightened to a point, and throwing their gigantic shadow the whole length of the street.
The immobility of this figure, in the moonlight, had something frightful in it. I felt my tongue grow icy cold, and my teeth chattered. I was about to utter a cry; but by what mysterious attraction I know not, my eyes were drawn towards the opposite house, and there I dimly distinguished the old woman, in the midst of the heavy shadow, squatting at her window and contemplating the hanging body with diabolical satisfaction.
I became giddy with terror; my whole strength deserted me, and I fell down in a heap insensible.
I do not know how long I lay unconscious. On coming to myself I found that it was broad day. The mists of night, entering my garret, had dropped their fresh moisture on my hair. Mingled and confused noises rose from the street below. I looked out from my window.
The burgomaster and his secretary were standing at the door of the Boeuf-gras; they remained there a long time. People came and went, stopped to look, then passed on their way. Women of the neighbourhood, sweeping in front of their houses, looked in the direction of the inn and chatted together. At length a stretcher, on which lay a body covered with a woollen cloth, was brought out and carried away by two men, children, on their way to school, following them as they went.
Then everyone else disappeared.
The window in front of the house remained open still; a fragment of rope dangled from the iron support of the signboard. I had not dreamed--I had really seen the night-moth on my window-pane--then the suspended body--then the old woman!
In the course of that day Toubec paid me his weekly visit. “Anything to sell, Master Christian?” he cried, as his big nose became visible above the edge of the floor, which it seemed to shave.
I did not hear him. I was seated on my only chair, my hands upon my knees, my eyes fixed on vacancy before me. Toubec, surprised at my immobility, repeated in a louder tone, “Master Christian!--Master Christian!” then, stepping up to me, tapped me smartly on the shoulder.
“What's the matter?--what's the matter?” he asked.
“Ah! is that you, Toubec?”
“Well, it's pleasant for me to think so! Are you ill?”
“No--I was thinking.”
“What the deuce about?”
“The man who was hung--”
“Aha!” cried the old broker; “you saw the poor fellow, then? What a strange affair! The third in the same place!”
“Yes, the third. I ought to have told you about it before; but there's still time--for there's sure to be a fourth, following the example of the others, the first step only making the difficulty.”
This said, Toubec seated himself on a box, struck a light with the flint and steel, lit his pipe and sent out a few puffs of tobacco-smoke with a thoughtful air.
“Good faith" said he, “I'm not timid; but if anyone were to ask me to sleep in that room, I'd rather go and hang myself somewhere else! Nine or ten months back,” he continued, “a wholesale furrier, from Tubingen, put up at the Boeuf-gras. He called for supper; ate well, drank well, and was shown up to bed in the room on the third floor which they call the ‘green chamber’; and the next day they found him hanging from the stanchion of the signboard.
“So much for number one, about which there was nothing to be said. A proper report of the affair was drawn up, and the body of the stranger was buried at the bottom of the garden. But about six weeks afterwards came a soldier from Neustadt; he had his discharge, and was congratulating himself on his return to his village. All the evening he did nothing but empty mugs of wine and talk of his cousin, who was waiting his return to marry him. At last they put him to bed in the green chamber, and the same night the watchman passing along the Rue des Minnesängers noticed something hanging from the signboardstanchion. He raised his lantern; it was the soldier, with his discharge-papers in a tin box hanging on his left thigh, and his hands planted smoothly on the outer seams of his trousers, as if he had been on parade!
“It was certainly an extraordinary affair! The burgomaster declared it was the work of the devil. The chamber was examined; they replastered its walls. A notice of the death was sent to Neustadt, on the margin of which the clerk wrote—‘Died suddenly of apoplexy.’
“All Nuremberg was indignant against the landlord of the Boeuf-gras, and wished to compel him to take down the iron stanchion of his signboard, on the pretext that it put dangerous ideas in people's heads. But you may easily imagine that old Nikel Schmidt didn't listen with the ear on that side of his head.
“ ‘That stanchion was put there by my grandfather,’ he said; ‘the sign of the Boeuf-gras has hung on it from father to son, for a hundred and fifty years; it does nobody any harm, not even the hay-carts that pass under it, because it's more than thirty feet high up; those who don't like it have only to look another way, and then they won't see it.’
“People's excitement gradually cooled down, and for several months nothing new happened. Unfortunately, a student from Heidelberg, on his way to the University, came to the Boeuf-gras and asked for a bed. He was the son of a pastor.
“Who could suppose that the son of a pastor would take into his head the idea of hanging himself to the stanchion of a public-house sign, because a furrier and a soldier had hung themselves there before him? It must be confessed, Master Christian, that the thing was not very probable--it would not have appeared more likely to you than it did to me. Well--”
“Enough! enough!” I cried; “it is a horrible affair. I feel sure there is some frightful mystery at the bottom of it. It is neither the stanchion nor the chamber--”
“You don't mean that you suspect the landlord?--as honest a man as there is in the world, and belonging to one of the oldest families in Nuremberg?”
“No, no! Heaven keep me from forming unjust suspicions of anyone; but there are abysses into the depths of which one dares not look.”
“You are right,” said Toubec, astonished at my excited manner; “and we had much better talk of something else. By-the-way, Master Christian, what about our landscape, the view of Sainte-Odile?”
The question brought me back to actualities. I showed the broker the picture I had just finished. The business was soon settled between us, and Toubec, thoroughly satisfied, went down the ladder, advising me to think no more of the student of Heidelberg.
I would very willingly have followed the old broker's advice, but when the devil mixes himself up with our affairs he is not easily shaken off.
In solitude, all these events came back to my mind with frightful distinctness.
The old woman, I said to myself, is the cause of all this; she alone has planned these crimes, she alone has carried them into execution; but by what means? Has she had recourse to cunning only or really to the intervention of the invisible powers?
I paced my garret, a voice within me crying, “It is not without purpose that Heaven has permitted you to see Fledermausse watching the agony of her victim; it was not without design that the poor young man's soul came to wake you in the form of a night-moth! No! all this has not been without purpose. Christian, Heaven imposes on you a terrible mission; if you fail to accomplish it, fear that you yourself may fall into the toils of the old woman! Perhaps at this moment she is laying her snares for you in the darkness!”
During several days these frightful images pursued me without cessation. I could not sleep; I found it impossible to work; the brush fell from my hand, and, shocking to confess, I detected myself at times complacently contemplating the dreadful stanchion. At last, one evening, unable any longer to bear this state of mind, I flew down the ladder four steps at a time, and went and hid myself beside Fledermausse's door, for the purpose of discovering her fatal secret.
From that time there was never a day that I was not on the watch, following the old woman like her shadow, never losing sight of her; but she was so cunning, she had so keen a scent that without even turning her head she discovered that I was behind her, and knew that I was on her track. But nevertheless, she pretended not to see me--went to the market, to the butcher's, like a simple housewife; only she quickened her pace and muttered to herself as she went.
At the end of a month I saw that it would be impossible for me to achieve my purpose by these means, and this conviction filled me with an inexpressible sadness.
“What can I do?” I asked myself. “The old woman has discovered my intentions, and is thoroughly on her guard. I am helpless. The old wretch already thinks she sees me at the end of the cord!”
At length, from repeating to myself again and again the question, “What can I do?” a luminous idea presented itself to my mind.
My chamber overlooked the house of Fledermausse, but it had no dormer window on that side. I carefully raised one of the slates of my roof, and the delight I felt on discovering that by this means I could command a view of the entire antique building can hardly be imagined.
“At last I've got you!” I cried to myself; “you cannot escape me now! From here I shall see everything--the goings and comings, the habits of the weasel in her hole! You will not suspect this invisible eye--this eye that will surprise the crime at the moment of its inception! Oh, Justice! it moves slowly, but it comes!”
Nothing more sinister than this den could be looked on--a large yard, paved with moss-grown flagstones; a well in one corner, the stagnant water of which was frightful to behold; a wooden staircase leading up to a railed gallery, from the balustrade of which hung the tick of an old mattress; to the left, on the first floor, a drain-stone indicated the kitchen; to the right, the upper windows of the house looked into the street. All was dark, decaying, and dank-looking.
The sun penetrated only for an hour or two during the day the depths of this dismal sty; then the shadows again spread over it--the light fell in lozenge shapes upon the crumbling walls, on the mouldy balcony, on the dull windows. Clouds of motes danced in the golden rays that not a motion of the air came to disturb.
Oh, the whole place was worthy of its mistress!
I had hardly made these reflections when the old woman entered the yard on her return from market. First, I heard her heavy door grate on its hinges, then Fledermausse, with her basket, appeared. She seemed fatigued--out of breath. The border of her cap hung down upon her nose, as, clutching the wooden rail with one hand, she mounted the stairs.
The heat was suffocating. It was exactly one of those days when insects of every kind--crickets, spiders, mosquitoes--fill old buildings with their grating noises and subterranean borings.
Fledermausse crossed the gallery slowly, like a ferret that feels itself at home. For more than a quarter of an hour she remained in the kitchen, then came out and turned her mattress-tick, swept the stones a little, on which a few straws had been scattered; at last she raised her head, with her green eyes carefully scrutinised every portion of the roof from which I was observing her.
By what strange intuition did she suspect anything? I know not; but I gently lowered the uplifted slate into its place, and gave over watching for the rest of that day.
The day following Fledermausse appeared to be reassured. A jagged ray of light fell into the gallery; passing this, she caught a fly, and delicately presented it to a spider established in an angle of the roof.
The spider was so large, that, in spite of the distance, I saw it descend round by round of its ladder, then, gliding along one thread, like a drop of venom, seize its prey from the fingers of the dreadful old woman, and remount rapidly. Fledermausse watched it attentively; then her eyes half-closed, she sneezed, and cried to herself in a jocular tone—
“Bless you, beauty!--bless you!”
For six weeks I could discover nothing as to the power of Fledermausse: sometimes I saw her peeling potatoes, sometimes spreading her linen on the balustrade. Sometimes I saw her spin; but she never sang, as old women usually do, their quivering voices going so well with the humming of the spinning-wheel. Silence reigned about her. She had no cat--the favourite company of old maids; not a sparrow ever flew down to her yard, in passing over which the pigeons seemed to hurry their flight. It seemed as if everything were afraid of her look.
The spider alone took pleasure in her society.
I now look back with wonder at my patience during those long hours of observation; nothing escaped my attention, nothing was indifferent to me; at the least sound I lifted my slate. Mine was a boundless curiosity stimulated by an indefinable fear.
“What the devil are you doing with your time, Master Christian?” he would say to me. “Formerly, you had something ready for me every week; now, hardly once in a month. Oh, you painters! people may well say, ‘Idle as a painter!’ As soon as they have a few kreutzer before them, they put their hands in their pockets and go to sleep!”
I myself was beginning to lose courage. With all my watching and spying, I had discovered nothing extraordinary. I was inclining to think that the old woman might not be so dangerous after all--that I had been wrong, perhaps, to suspect her. In short, I tried to find excuses for her. But one fine evening, while, with my eye to the opening in the roof, I was giving myself up to these charitable reflections, the scene abruptly changed.
Fledermausse passed along her gallery with the swiftness of a flash of light. She was no longer herself: she was erect, her jaws knit, her look fixed, her neck extended; she moved with long strides, her grey hair streaming behind her.
“Oh, oh!” I said to myself, “--something is going on--attention!”
But the shadows of night descended on the big house, the noises of the town died out, and all became silent. I was about to seek my bed, when, happening to look out of my skylight, I saw a light in the window of the green chamber of the Boeuf-gras--a traveller was occupying that terrible room!
All my fears were instantly revived. The old woman's excitement explained itself--she scented another victim!
I could not sleep all that night. The rustling of the straw of my mattress, the nibbling of a mouse under the floor, sent a chill through me. I rose and looked out of my window--I listened. The light I had seen was no longer visible in the green chamber.
During one of these moments of poignant anxiety--whether the result of illusion or of reality--I fancied I could discern the figure of the old witch, likewise watching and listening.
The night passed, the dawn showed grey against my window-panes, and, slowly increasing, the sounds and movements of the re-awakened town arose. Harassed with fatigue and emotion, I at last fell asleep; but my repose was of short duration, and by eight o'clock I was again at my post of observation.
It appeared that Fledermausse had passed a night no less stormy than mine had been; for, when she opened the door of the gallery, I saw that a livid pallor was upon her cheeks and skinny neck. She had nothing on but her chemise and a flannel petticoat; a few locks of rusty grey hair fell upon her shoulders. She looked up musingly towards my garret; but she saw nothing--she was thinking of something else.
Suddenly she descended into the yard, leaving her shoes at the top of the stairs. Doubtless her object was to assure herself that the outer door was securely fastened. She then hurried up the stairs, taking three or four steps at a time. It was frightful to see! She rushed into one of the side rooms, and I heard the sound of a heavy box-lid fall. Then Fledermausse reappeared in the gallery, dragging with her a lay-figure the size of life--and this figure was dressed like the unfortunate student of Heidelberg!
With surprising dexterity the old woman suspended this hideous object to a beam of the overhanging roof, then went down into the yard, to contemplate it from that point of view. A peal of grating laughter broke from her lips--she hurried up the stairs, and rushed down again, like a maniac; and every time she did this she burst into fresh fits of laughter.
A sound was heard outside the street door; the old woman sprang to the figure, snatched it from its fastening, and carried it into the house; then she reappeared and leaned over the balcony, with outstretched neck, glittering eyes, and eagerly listening ears. The sound passed away--the muscles of her face relaxed, she drew a long breath. The passing of a vehicle had alarmed the old witch.
She then, once more, went back into her chamber, and I heard the lid of the box close heavily.
This strange scene utterly confounded all my ideas. What could that lay-figure mean?
I became more watchful and attentive than ever. Fledermausse went out with her basket, and I watched her to the top of the street; she had resumed her air of tottering agedness, walking with short steps, and from time to time half-turning her head, so as to enable herself to look behind out of the corners of her eyes. For five long hours she remained abroad, while I went and came from my spying-place incessantly, meditating all the while--the sun heating the slates above my head till my brain was almost scorched.
I saw at his window the traveller who occupied the green chamber at the Boeuf-gras; he was a peasant of Nassau, wearing a three-cornered hat, a scarlet waistcoat, and having a broad laughing countenance. He was tranquilly smoking his Ulm pipe, unsuspicious of anything wrong. I felt impelled to call out to him, “My good fellow, be on your guard! Don't let yourself be fascinated by the old woman!--don't trust yourself!” But he could not have understood a word I said, even if he had heard me.
About two o'clock Fledermausse came back. The sound of her door opening echoed to the end of the passage. Presently she appeared alone, quite alone in the yard, and seated herself on the lowest step of the gallery-stairs. She placed her basket at her feet and drew from it, first several bunches of herbs, then some vegetables--then a three-cornered hat; a scarlet velvet waistcoat, a pair of plush breeches, and a pair of thick worsted stockings--the complete costume of a peasant of Nassau!
I reeled with giddiness--flames passed before my eyes.
I remembered those precipices that drew one towards them with irresistible power--wells that have had to be filled up because of persons throwing themselves into them--trees that have had to be cut down because of people hanging themselves upon them--the contagion of suicide and theft and murder, which at various times has taken possession of people's minds, by means well understood; that strange inducement, for example, which makes people yawn because they see others yawn--kill themselves because others kill themselves. My hair rose upon my head with horror!
But how could this Fledermausse--a creature so mean and wretched--have made discovery of so profound a law of nature? How had she found the means of turning it to the use of her sanguinary instincts? This I could neither understand nor imagine. Without more reflection, however, I resolved to turn the fatal law against her, and by its power to drag her into her own snare. So many innocent victims called for vengeance!
I began at once. I hurried to all the old clothes-dealers in Nuremberg; and by the evening I arrived at the Boeuf-gras, with an enormous parcel under my arm.
Nikel Schmidt had long known me. I had painted the portrait of his wife, a fat and comely dame.
“What!--Master Christian!’ he cried, shaking me by the hand, “to what happy circumstance do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“My dear Mr. Schmidt, I feel a very strong desire to pass the night in that room of yours up yonder.”
We were on the doorstep of the inn, and I pointed up to the green chamber. The good fellow looked suspiciously at me.
“Oh I don't be afraid," I said, "I've no desire to hang myself.”
“I'm glad of it! I'm glad of it! for, frankly, I should be sorry--an artist of your talent. When do you want the room, Master Christian?”
“That's impossible--it's occupied.”
“The gentleman can have it at once, if he likes,” said a voice behind us; “I shan't stay in it.”
We turned in surprise. It was the peasant of Nassau; his large three-cornered hat pressed down upon the back of his neck, and his bundle at the end of his travelling-stick. He had learned the story of the three travellers who had hung themselves.
“Such chambers!” he cried, stammering with terror; “it's--it's murdering people to put them into such!--you-you deserve to be sent to the galleys!”
“Come, come, calm yourself,” said the landlord; “you slept there comfortably enough last night.”
“Thank Heaven! I said my prayers before going to rest, or where should I be now?”
And he hurried away, raising his hands to heaven. “Well,” said Master Schmidt, stupefied, “the chamber is empty, but don't go into it to do me an ill turn.”
“I should be doing myself a much worse one,” I replied. Giving my parcel to the servant-girl, I went and seated myself provisionally among the guests who were drinking and smoking.
For a long time I had not felt more calm, more happy to be in the world. After so much anxiety, I saw approaching my end--the horizon seemed to grow lighter. I know not by what formidable power I was being led on. I lit my pipe, and with my elbow on the table and a jug of wine before me, listened to the hunting-chorus from “Der Freischutz,” played by a band of Zigeuners from Schwartz-Wald. The trumpet, the hunting-horn, the hautbois by turns, plunged me into vague reverie; and sometimes rousing myself to look at the woman's house, I seriously asked myself whether all that had happened to me was more than a dream. But when the watchman came, to request us to vacate the room, graver thoughts took possession of my mind, and I followed, in meditative mood, the little servant-girl who preceded me with a candle in her hand.
We mounted the window flight of stairs to the third storey; arrived there, she placed the candle in my hand, and pointed to a door.
“That's it,” she said, and hurried back down the stairs as fast as she could go.
I opened the door. The green chamber was like all other inn bedchambers; the ceiling was low, the bed was high. After casting a glance round the room, I stepped across to the window.
Nothing was yet noticeable in Fledermausse's house, with the exception of a light, which shone at the back of a deep obscure bedchamber--a nightlight, doubtless.
“So much the better,” I said to myself, as I re-closed the window-curtains; “I shall have plenty of time.”
I opened my parcel, and from its contents put on a woman's cap with a broad frilled border; then, with a piece of pointed charcoal, in front of the glass, I marked my forehead with a number of wrinkles. This took me a full hour to do; but after I had put on a gown and a large shawl, I was afraid of myself: Fledermausse herself was looking at me from the depths of the glass!
At that moment the watchman announced the hour of eleven. I rapidly dressed the lay-figure I had brought with me like the one prepared by the old witch. I then drew apart the window-curtains.
Certainly, after all I had seen of the old woman--her infernal cunning, her prudence, and her address--nothing ought to have surprised even me; yet I was positively terrified.
The light, which I had observed at the back of her room, now cast its yellow rays on her lay-figure, dressed like the peasant of Nassau, which sat huddled up on the side of the bed, its head dropped upon its chest, the large three-cornered hat drawn down over its features, its arms pendant by its sides, and its whole attitude that of a person plunged in despair.
Managed with diabolical art, the shadow permitted only a general view of the figure, the red waistcoat and its six rounded buttons alone caught the light; but the silence of night, the complete immobility of the figure, and its air of terrible dejection, all served to impress the beholder with irresistible force; even I myself, though not in the least taken by surprise, felt chilled to the marrow of my bones. How, then, would a poor countryman taken completely off his guard have felt? He would have been utterly overthrown; he would have lost all control of will, and the spirit of imitation would have done the rest.
Scarcely had I drawn aside the curtains then I discovered Fledermausse on the watch behind her window-panes.
She could not see me. I opened the window softly, the window over the way softly opened too; then the lay-figure appeared to rise slowly and advance towards me; I did the same, and seizing my candle with one hand, with the other threw the casement wide open.
The old woman and I were face to face; for, overwhelmed with astonishment, she had let the lay-figure fall from her hands. Our two looks crossed with an equal terror.
She stretched forth a finger, I did the same; her lips moved, I moved mine; she heaved a deep sigh and leant upon elbow, I rested in the same way.
How frightful the enacting of this scene was I cannot describe; it was made up of delirium, bewilderment, madness. It was a struggle between two wills, two intelligences, two souls, one of which sought to crush the other; and in this struggle I had the advantage. The dead were on my side.
After having for some seconds imitated all the movements of Fledermausse, I drew a cord from the folds of my petticoat and tied it to the iron stanchion of the signboard.
The old woman watched me with open mouth. I passed the cord round my neck. Her tawny eyeballs glittered; her features became convulsed—
“No, no!” she cried, in a hissing tone; “no!”
I proceeded with the impassibility of a hangman.
Then Fledermausse was seized with rage.
“You're mad! you're mad!” she cried, springing up and clutching wildly at the sill of the window; “you're mad!”
I gave her no time to continue. Suddenly blowing out my light, I stooped like a man preparing to make a vigorous spring, then seizing my lay-figure, slipped the cord about its neck and hurled it into the air.
A terrible shriek resounded through the street; then all was silent again.
Perspiration bathed my forehead. I listened a long time. At the end of an hour I heard far off--very far off--the cry of the watchman, announcing to the inhabitants of Nuremberg that midnight had struck.
“Justice is at last done,” I murmured to myself; “the three victims are avenged. Heaven forgive me!”
This was five minutes after I had heard the last cry of the watchman, and when I had seen the old witch drawn by the likeness of herself, a cord about her neck, hanging from the iron stanchion projecting from her house. I saw the thrill of death run through her limbs and the moon, calm and silent, rose above the edge of the roof, and shed its cold pale rays upon her dishevelled head.
As I had seen the poor young student of Heidelberg, I now saw Fledermausse.
The next day all Nuremberg knew that “that Bat” had hung herself. It was the last event of the kind in the Rue des Minnesängers.
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