E.T.A. Hoffmann: “The Deserted House” 3/3
Excerpt, “The Lock and Key Library: Classic Mystery and Detective Stories – German.” Edited by Julian Hawthorne, 1909.
“Welcome. Welcome, sweet bridegroom. The hour has come … our bridal hour.”
I heard these words in a woman’s voice, as little as I can tell how I came into the room. Just so little do I know how it happened that suddenly a tall, youthful figure, richly dressed, seemed to arise from the blue mists. With the repeated shrill cry: “Welcome, sweet bridegroom!” she came toward me with outstretched arms — and a yellow face, distorted with age and madness, stared into mine! I fell back in terror, but the fiery, piercing glance of her eyes, like the eyes of a snake, seemed to hold me spellbound.
I did not seem able to turn my eyes from this terrible old woman, I could not move another step. She came still nearer, and it seemed to me suddenly as if her hideous face were only a thin mask, beneath which I saw the features of the beautiful maiden of my vision. Already I felt the touch of her hands, when suddenly she fell at my feet with a loud scream, and a voice behind me cried:
“Oho, is the devil playing his tricks with your grace again? To bed, to bed, your grace. Else there will be blows, mighty blows!”
I turned quickly and saw the old steward in his night clothes, swinging a whip above his head. He was about to strike the screaming figure at my feet when I caught at his arm. But he shook me from him, exclaiming: “The devil, sir! The old Satan would have murdered you if I had not come to your aid. Get away from here at once!”
I rushed from the hall, and sought in vain in the darkness for the door of the house. Behind me I heard the hissing blows of the whip and the old woman’s screams. I drew breath to call aloud for help, when suddenly the ground gave way under my feet; I fell down a short flight of stairs, bringing up with such force against a door at the bottom that it sprang open, and I measured my length on the floor of a small room. From the hastily vacated bed. and from the familiar brown coat hanging over a chair, I saw that I was in the bedchamber of the old steward.
There was a trampling on the stair, and the old man himself entered hastily, throwing himself at my feet. “By all the saints, sir,” he entreated with the folded hands, “whoever you may be, and however her grace, that old Satan of a witch, has managed to entice you to this house, do not speak to anyone of what has happened here. It will cost me my position. Her crazy excellency has been punished, and is bound fast in her bed. Sleep well, good sir, sleep softly and sweetly. It is a warm and beautiful July night. There is no moon, but the stars shine brightly. A quiet good night to you.”
While talking, the old man had taken up a lamp, had led me out of the basement, pushed me out of the house door, and locked it behind me. I hurried home quite bewildered, and you can imagine that I was too much confused by the grewsome secret to be able to form any explanation of it in my own mind for the first few days. Only this much was certain, that I was now free from the evil spell that had held me captive so long.
All my longing for the magic vision in the mirror had disappeared, and the memory of the scene in the deserted house was like the recollection of an unexpected visit to a madhouse. It was evident beyond a doubt that the steward was the tyrannical guardian of a crazy woman of noble birth, whose condition was to be hidden from the world. But the mirror? and all the other magic? Listen, and I will tell you more about it.
Some few days later I came upon Count P. at an evening entertainment. He drew me to one side and said, with a smile, “Do you know that the secrets of our deserted house are beginning to be revealed?” I listened with interest; but before the count could say more the doors of the dining room were thrown open, and the company proceeded to the table. Quite lost in thought at the words I had just heard, I had given a young lady my arm, and had taken my place mechanically in the ceremonious procession. I led my companion to the seats arranged for us, and then turned to look at her for the first time.
The vision of my mirror stood before me, feature for feature, there was no deception possible! I trembled to my innermost heart, as you can image; but I discovered that there was not the slightest echo even, in my heart, of the mad desire which had ruled me so entirely when my breath drew out the magic picture from the glass. My astonishment, or rather my terror, must have been apparent in my eyes. The girl looked at me in such surprise that I endeavored to control myself sufficiently to remark that I must have met her somewhere before.
Her short answer, to the effect that this could hardly be possible, as she had come to the city only yesterday for the first time in her life, bewildered me still more and threw me into an awkward silence. The sweet glance from her gentle eyes brought back my course, and I began a tentative exploring of this new companion’s mind. I found that I had before me a sweet and delicate being, suffering from some psychic trouble. At a particularly merry turn of the conversation, when I would throw in a daring word like a dash of pepper, she would smile, but her smile was pained, as if a wound had been touched.
“You are not very merry tonight, countess. Was it the visit this morning?” An officer sitting near us had spoken these words to my companion, but before he could finish his remark his neighbor had grasped him by the arm and whispered something in his ear, while a lady at the other side of the table, with glowing cheeks and angry eyes, began to talk loudly of the opera she had heard last evening. Tears came to the eyes of the girl sitting beside me. “Am I not foolish?” She turned to me. A few moments before, she had complained of headache. “Merely, the usual evidence of a nervous headache.”
I answered in an easy tone, “and there is nothing better for it than the merry spirit which bubbles in the foam of this poet’s nectar.” With these words, I filled her champagne glass, and she sipped at it as she threw me a look of gratitude. Her mood brightened, and all would have been well had I not touched a glass before me with unexpected strength, arousing from it a shrill, high tone. My companion grew deadly pale, and I myself felt a sudden shiver, for the sound had exactly the tone of the mad woman’s voice in the deserted house.
While we were drinking coffee, I made an opportunity to get to the side of Count P. He understood the reason for my movement. “Do you know that your neighbor is Countess Edwina S? And do you known also that is her mother’s sister who lives in the deserted house, incurably mad for many years? This morning both mother and daughter went to see the unfortunate woman. The old steward, the only person who is able to control the countess in her outbreaks, is seriously ill, and they say that the sister has finally revealed the secret to Dr. K. This eminent physician will endeavor to cure the patient, or if this is not possible, at least to prevent her terrible outbreaks of mania. This is all that I know yet.”
Others joined us and we were obliged to change the subject . Dr. K was the physician to whom I had turned in my own anxiety, and you can well imagine that I hurried to him as soon as I was free, and told him all that had happened to me in the last days.
I asked him to tell me as much as he could about the mad woman, for my own peace of mind; and this is what I learned from him under promise of secrecy.
“Angelica, Countess Z,” thus the doctor began, “had already passed her thirtieth year, but was still in full possession of great beauty, when Count S, although much younger than she, became so fascinated by her charm that he wooed her with ardent devotion and followed her to her father’s home to try his luck there. But scarcely had the count entered the house, scarcely had he caught sight of Angelica’s younger sister, Gabrielle, when he awoke as from a dream. The elder sister appeared faded and colorless beside Gabrielle, whose beauty and charm so enthralled the count that he begged her hand of her father.
Count Z gave his consent easily, as there was no doubt of Gabrielle’s feelings toward her suitor. Angelica did not show the slightest anger at her lover’s faithlessness. ‘He believes he has forsaken me, the foolish boy! He does not perceive that he was but my toy, a toy of which I had tired.” Thus she spoke in proud scorn, and not a look or an action on her part belied her words. But after the ceremonious betrothal of Gabrielle to Count S, Angelica was seldom seen by the members of the family. She did not appear at the dinner table, and it was said that she spent most of her time walking alone in the neighboring wood.
“A strange occurrence disturbed the monotonous quiet of life in the castle. The hunters of Count Z, assisted by peasants from the village, had captured a band of gypsies who were accused of several robberies and murders which had happened recently in the neighborhood. The men were brought to the castle courtyard, fettered together on a long chain, while the women and children were packed on a cart. Noticeable among the last was a tall, haggard old woman of terrifying aspect, wrapped from head to foot in a red shawl. She stood upright in the cart, and in an imperious tone demanded that she should be allowed to descend. The guards were so awed by her manner and appearance that they obeyed her at once.
“Count Z came down to the courtyard and commanded that the gang should be placed in the prisons under the castle. Suddenly, Countess Angelica rushed out of the door, her hair all loose, her fear and anxiety in her pale face. Throwing herself on her knees, she cried in a piercing voice, “Let these people go! Let these people go! They are innocent! Father, let these people go! If you shed one drop of their blood I will pierce my heart with this knife!” The countess swung a shining knife in the air and then sank swooning to the ground. “Yes, my beautiful darling – my golden child – I knew you would not let them hurt us,” shrilled the old woman in red.
She cowered beside the countess and pressed disgusting kisses to her face and breast, murmuring crazy words. She took from out the recesses of her shawl a little vial in which a tiny goldfish seemed to swim in some silver-clear liquid. She held the vial to the countess’s heart. The latter regained consciousness immediately. When her eyes fell on the gypsy woman, she sprang up, clasped the old creature ardently in her arms, and hurried with her into the castle.
“Count Z, Gabrielle, and her lover, who had come out during this scene, watched it in astonished awe. The gypsies appeared quite indifferent. They were loosed from their chains and taken separately to the prisons. Next morning, Count Z called the villagers together. The gypsies were led before them and the count announced that he had found them to be innocent of the crimes of which they were accused, and that he would grant them free passage through his domains. To the astonishment of all present, their fetters were struck off and they were set at liberty.
The red-shawled woman was not among them. It was whispered that the gypsy captain, recognizable from the golden chain about his neck and the red feather in his high Spanish hat, had paid a secret visit to the count’s room the night before. But it was discovered, a short time after the release of the gypsies, that they were indeed guiltless of the robberies and murders that had disturbed the district.
“The date set for Gabrielle’s wedding approached. One day, to her great astonishment, she saw several large wagons in the courtyard being packed high with furniture, clothing, linen, with everything necessary for a complete household outfit. The wagons were driven away, and the following day Count Z explained that, for many reasons, he had thought it best to grant Angelica’s odd request that she be allowed to set up her own establishment in his house in X. He had given the house to her, and had promised her that no member of the family , not even he himself, should enter it without her express permission. He added also at her urgent request his own valet be permitted to accompany her, to take charge of her household.
When the wedding festivities were over, Court S and his bride departed for their home, where they spent a year in cloudless happiness. Then the count’s health failed mysteriously. It was as if some secret sorrow gnawed at his vitals, robbing him of joy and strength. All efforts of his young wife to discover the source of his trouble were fruitless. At last, when the constantly recurring fainting spells threatened to endanger his very life, he yielded to the entreaties of his physicians and left his home, ostensibly for Pisa. His young wife was prevented from accompanying him by the delicate condition of her own health.
“And now,” said the doctor, “the information given me by the Countess S became, from this point on, so rhapsodical that a keen observer only could guess at the true coherence of the story. Her baby, a daughter, born during her husband’s absence, was spirited away from the house, and all search for it was fruitless. Her grief at this loss deepened to despair, when she received a message stating that her husband, whom all believed to be in Pisa, had been found dying of heart trouble in Angelica’s home in X, and that Angelica herself had become a dangerous maniac. The old count added that all this horror had so shaken his own nerves that he feared he would not long survive it.
“As soon as Gabrielle was able to leave her bed, she hurried to her father’s castle. One night, prevented from sleeping by visions of the loved ones she had lost, she seemed to hear a faint crying, like that of an infant, before the door of her chamber. Lighting her candle she opened the door. Great Heaven! there cowered the old gypsy woman, wrapped in her red shawl, staring up at her with eyes that seemed already glazing in death. In her arms, she held a little child, whose crying has aroused the countess. Gabrielle’s heart beat high with joy – it was her child – her lost daughter! She snatched the infant from the gypsy’s arm, just as the woman fell at her feet lifeless. The countess’ screams awoke the house, but the gypsy was quite dead and no effort to revive her met with success.
The old count hurried to X, to endeavor to discover somewhat that would throw light upon the mysterious disappearance of the child. Angelica’s madness had frightened away all of her female servants; the valet alone remained with her. She appeared at first to have become quite calm and sensible. But when the count told her the story of Gabrielle’s child she clapped her hands and laughed aloud, crying: “Did the little darling arrive? You buried her, you say? How the feathers of the gold pheasant shine in the sun! Have you seen the green lion with the fiery blue eyes?”
Horrified, the count perceived that Angelica’s mind was gone beyond a doubt, and he resolved to take her back with him to his estates, in spite of the warnings of his old valet. At the mere suggestion of removing her from the home Angelica’s ravings increased to such an extent as to endanger her own life and that of the others.
When a lucid interval came again Angelica entreated her father, with many tears, to let her live and die in the house she had chosen. Touched by her terrible trouble he granted her request, although he believed the confession which slipped from her lips during this scene to be a fantasy of her madness. She told him that Count S had returned to her arms, and that the child which the gypsy had taken to her father’s house was the fruit of their love.
The rumor went abroad in the city that Count Z had taken the unfortunate woman to his home; but the truth was that she remained hidden in the deserted house under the care of the valet. Count Z died a short time ago, and Countess Gabrielle came here with her daughter Edwina to arrange some family affairs. It was not possible for her to avoid seeing her unfortunate sister. Strange things must have happened during this visit, but the countess has not confided anything to me, saying merely that she had found it necessary to take the mad woman away from the old valet.
It had been discovered that he had controlled her outbreaks by means of force and physical cruelty; and that also, allured by Angelica’s assertions that she could make gold, he had allowed himself to assist her in her weird operations.
It would be quite unnecessary,” thus the physician ended his story, “to say anything more to you about the deeper inward relationship of all these strange things. It is clear to my mind that it was you who brought about the catastrophe, a catastrophe which will mean recovery or speedy death for the sick woman. And now I will confess to you that I was not a little alarmed, horrified even, to discover that – when I had set myself in magnetic communication with you by placing my hand on your neck — I could see the picture in the mirror with my own eyes. We both know now that the reflection in the glass was the face of Countess Edwina.”
I repeat Dr. K’s words in saying that to my mind also, there is no further comment that can be made on all these facts. I consider it equally unnecessary to discuss at any further length with you now the mysterious relationship between Angelica, Edwina, the old valet, and myself — a relationship which seemed the work of a malicious demon who was playing his tricks with us. I will add only that I left the city soon after all these events, driven from the place by an oppression I could not shake off.
The uncanny sensation left me suddenly a month or so later, giving way to a feeling of intense relief that flowed through all my veins with the warmth of an electric current. I am convinced that this change within me came about in the moment when the mad woman died.”
Thus did Theodor end his narrative. His friends had much to say about his strange adventure, and they agreed with him that the odd and unusual, and the truly marvelous as well, were mingled in a strange and grewsome manner in his story. When they parted for the night, Franz shook Theodor’s hand gently, as he said with a smile: “Good night, you Spallanzani bat, you.”