E.T.A. Hoffmann: “The Deserted House” 1/3

Excerpt, “The Lock and Key Library: Classic Mystery and Detective Stories – German.” Edited by Julian Hawthorne, 1909.

old german house
The Deserted House

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann

They were all agreed in the belief that the actual facts of life are often far more wonderful than the invention of even the liveliest imagination can be.
“It seems to me,” spoke Lelio,” that history gives proof sufficient of this. And that is why the so-called historical romances seem so repulsive and tasteless to us, those stories wherein the author mingles the foolish fancies of his meager brain with the deeds of the great powers of the universe. “
Franz took the word. “It is the deep reality of the inscrutable secrets surrounding us that oppresses us with a might wherein we recognize the Spirit that rules, the Spirit out of which our being springs. “
“Alas,” said Lelio, “it is the most terrible result of the fall of man, that we have lost the power of recognizing the eternal verities.”
“Many are called, but few are chosen,” broke in Franz. “Do you not believe that an understanding of the wonders of our existence is given to some of us in the form of another sense? But if you would allow me to drag the conversation up from the dark regions where we are in danger of losing our path altogether up into the brightness of light-hearted merriment, I would like to make the scurrilous suggestion that those mortals to whom this gift of seeing the Unseen has been given remind me of bats. You know the learned anatomist Spallanzani has discovered a sixth sense in those little animals which can do not only the entire work of other senses, but work of his own besides.”
“Oho,” laughed Edward, “according to that, the bats would be the only natural-born clairvoyants. But I know some one who possesses that gift of insight, of which you were speaking, in a remarkable degree. Because of it he will often follow for days some unknown person who has happened to attract his attention by an oddity in manner, appearance, or garb; he will ponder to melancholy over some trifling incident, some lightly told story; he will combine the antipodes and raise up relationships in his imagination which are unknown to everyone else.”
“Wait a bit,” cried Lelio. “It is our Theodor of whom you are speaking now. And it looks to me as if he were having some weird vision at this very moment. See how strangely he gazes out into the distance.”
Theodor had been sitting in silence up to this moment. Now he spoke: “If my glances are strange, it is because they reflect the strange things that were called up before my vision by your conversation, the memories of a most remarkable adventure.”
“Oh, do tell us,” interrupted his friends.
“Gladly,” continued Theodor. “But first, let me set right a slight confound in your ideas on the subject of the mysterious. You appear to be confusing what is merely odd and what unusual with what is really mysterious or marvelous; that which surpasses comprehension or belief. The odd and the unusual, it is true, spring often from the truly marvelous, and the twigs and flowers hide the parent stem from our eyes. Both the odd and the unusual and truly marvelous are mingled in the adventure which I am about to narrate to you, mingled in a manner which is striking and even awesome.”
With these words Theodor drew from his pocket a notebook in which, as his friends knew, he had written down the impressions of his late journeyings. Refreshing his memory by a look at its pages now and then, he narrated the following story.
You know already that I spent the greater part of last summer in X___. The many old friends and acquaintances I found there, the free, jovial life, the manifold artistic and intellectual interests — all these combined to keep me in that city. I was happy as never before, and found rich nourishment for my old fondness for wandering alone through the streets, stopping to enjoy every picture in the shop windows, every placard on the walls, or watching the passers-by and choosing some one or the other of them to cast his horoscope secretly to myself.
There is a broad avenue leading to the ___ Gate and lined with handsome buildings of all descriptions, which is the meeting place of the rich and fashionable world. The shops which occupy the ground floors of the tall palaces of the foreign ambassadors are there, and you can easily imagine that such a street would be the center of the city’s life and gaiety.
I had wandered through the avenue several times, when one day my attention was caught by a house which contrasted strangely with the others surrounding it. Picture to yourselves a low building but four windows broad, crowded in between two tall, handsome structures. In one, the upper story was little higher than the tops of the ground floor windows of its neighbors, its roof was dilapidated, its windows patched with paper, its discolored walls spoke of years of neglect. You can image how strange such a house must have looked in this street of wealth and fashion.
Looking at it more attentively, I perceived that the windows of the upper story were tightly closed and curtained, and that a wall had been built to hide the windows of the ground floor. The entrance gate, a little to one side, served also as a doorway for the building, but I could find no sign of latch, lock, or even a bell on this gate. I was convinced that the house must be unoccupied, for at whatever hour of the day that I happened to be passing I had never seen the faintest signs of life about it. An unoccupied house in this avenue was indeed an odd sight.
But I explained the phenomenon to myself by saying that the owner was doubtless absent upon a long journey, or living upon his country estates, and that he perhaps did not wish to sell or rent the property, preferring to keep it for his own use in the eventuality of a visit to the city.
You all, the good comrades of my youth, know that I have been prone to consider myself a sort of clairvoyant, claiming to have glimpses of a strange world of wonders, a world which you, with your hard common sense, would attempt to deny or laugh away. I confess that I have often lost myself in mysteries which after all turned out to be no mysteries at all. And it looked at first as if this was to happen to me in the matter of the deserted house, that strange house which drew my steps and my thoughts to itself with a power that surprised me. But the point of my story will prove to you that I am right in asserting that I know more than you do. Listen now to what I am about to tell you.
One day, at the hour in which the fashionable world is accustomed to promenade up and down the avenue, I stood as usual before the deserted house, lost in thought. Suddenly, I felt, without looking up, that some one had stopped beside me, fixing his eyes on me. It was Count P., whom I had found much in sympathy with many of my imaginings, and I knew that he also must have been deeply interested in the mystery of this house. It surprised me not a little, therefore, that he should smile ironically when I spoke of the strange impression that this deserted dwelling, here in the gay heart of the town, had made upon me. But I soon discovered the reason for his irony. Count P. had gone much farther than myself in his imaginings concerning the house.
He had constructed for himself a complete history of the old building, a story weird enough to have been born in the fancy of a true poet. It would give me great pleasure to relate this story to you, but the events which happened to me in this connection are so interesting that I feel I must proceed with the narration of them at once.
When the count had completed his story to his own satisfaction, imagine his feelings on learning one day that the old house contained nothing more mysterious than a cake bakery belonging to the pastry cook whose handsome shop adjoined the old structure. The windows of the ground floor were walled up to give protection to the ovens, and the heavy curtains of the upper story were to keep the sunlight from the wares laid out there. When the count informed me of this I felt as if a bucket of cold water had been suddenly thrown over me. The demon who is the enemy of all poets caught the dreamer by the nose and tweaked him painfully.
And yet, in spite of the this prosaic explanation, I could not resist stopping before the deserted house whenever I passed it, and gentle tremors rippled through my veins at vague visions arose of what might be hidden there. I could not believe in this story of the cake and the candy factory. Through some strange freak of the imagination I felt as a child feels when some fairy tale has been told it to conceal the truth it suspects. I scolded myself for a silly fool; the house remained unaltered in its appearance, and the visions faded in my brain, until one day a chance incident woke them to life again.
I was wandering through the avenue as usual, and as I passed the deserted house I could not resist a hasty glance at its close-curtained upper windows. But as I looked at it, the curtain on the last window near the pastry shop began to move. A hand, an arm, came out from between its folds. I took my opera glass from my pocket and saw a beautifully formed woman’s hand, on the little finger of which a large diamond sparkled in unusual brilliance; a rich bracelet glittered on the white, rounded, arm. The hand set a tall, oddly formed crystal bottle on the window ledge and disappeared again behind the curtain.
I stopped as if frozen to stone; a weirdly pleasurable sensation, mingled with awe, streamed through my being with the warmth of an electric current. I stared up at the mysterious window and a sigh of longing arose from the very depths of my heart. When I came to myself again, I was angered to find that I was surrounded by a crowd which stood gazing up at the window with curious faces. I stole away inconspicuously, and the demon of all things prosaic, whispered to me that what I had just seen was the rich pastry cook’s wife, in her Sunday adornment, placing an empty bottle, used for rose-water or the like, on the window sill. Nothing very weird about this.
Suddenly, a most sensible thought came to me. I turned and entered a shining, mirror-walled shop of the pastry cook. Blowing the steaming foam from my cup of chocolate, I remarked: “You have a very useful addition to your establishment next door.” The man leaned over his counter and looked at me with a questioning smile, as if he did not understand me. I repeated that in my opinion he had been very clever to set up his bakery in the neighboring house, although the deserted appearance of the building was a strange sight in its contrasting surroundings.
“Why, sir,” began the pastry cook, “who told you that the house next door belongs to us? Unfortunately, every attempt on our part to acquire it has been in vain, and I fancy it is all the better so, for there is something queer about the place.”
You can imagine, dear friends, how interested I became upon hearing these words, and that I begged the man to tell me more about the house.
“I do not know anything very definite, sir,” he said. “All that we know for a certainty is that the house belongs to the Countess S., who lives on her estates and has not been to the city for years. This house, so they tell me, stood in its present shape before any of the handsome buildings were raised which are now the pride of our avenue, and in all these years there has been nothing done to it except to keep it from actual decay. Two living creatures alone dwell there, an aged misanthrope of a steward and his melancholy dog, which occasionally howls at the moon from the back courtyard. According to the general story, the deserted house is haunted. In very truth, my brother, who is the owner of this shop, and myself have often, when our business kept us awake during the silence of the night, heard strange sounds from the other side of the wall.”
The glass doors of the shop creaked in opening. The pastry cook hurried into the front room, and when he had nodded to the figure now entering he threw a meaning glance at me. I understood him perfectly. Who else could this strange guess be, but the steward who had charge of the mysterious house! Imagine a thin little man with a face the color of a mummy, with a sharp nose, tight-set lips, green cat’s eyes, and a crazy smile; his hair dressed in the old-fashioned style with a high toupet and a bag in the back, and heavily powdered. He wore a faded old brown coat which was carefully brushed, gray stockings and broad flat-toed shoes with buckles.
And imagine further that, in spite of his meagerness this little person is robustly built, with huge fists and long, strong fingers, and that he walks to the shop counter with a strong, firm step, smiling his imbecile smile, and whining out: “A couple of candied oranges – a couple of macaroons – a couple of sugar chestnuts!” Picture all this to yourself and judge whether I had not sufficient cause to imagine a mystery here.
The pastry cook gathered up the wares the old man had demanded. “Weigh it out, weigh it out, honored neighbor,” moaned the strange man, as he drew out a little leathern bag and sought in it for his money. I noticed that he paid for his purchase in worn old coins, some of which were no longer in use. He seemed very unhappy and murmured: “Sweet- sweet – it must all be sweet! Well, let it be! The devil has pure honey for his bride – pure honey!” The pastry cook smiled at me and then spoke to the old man. “You do not seem to be quite well. Yes, yes, old age! It takes the strength from our limbs!”
The old man’s expression did not change, but his voice went up: “Old Age! Old age? Lose strength? Grow weak? — Oho!” And with this, he clapped his hands together until the joints cracked, and sprang high up into the air until the whole shop trembled and the glass vessels on the walls and counters rattled and shook. But in the same moment, a hideous screaming was heard; the old man had stepped on his black dog, which, creeping in behind him, had laid itself at his feet on the floor.
“Devilish beast — dog of hell!” groaned the old man in his former miserable tone, opening his bag and giving the dog a large macaroon. The dog, which had burst out into a cry of distress that was truly human, was quiet at once, sat down on its haunches, and gnawed at the macaroon like a squirrel. When it had finished its tidbit, the old man had also finished the packing up and putting away of his purchases. “Good night, honored neighbor,” he spoke, taking hand of the pastry cook and pressing it until the latter cried aloud in pain. “The weak old man wishes you a good night, most honorable Sir Neighbor,” he repeated, and then walked from the shop, followed closely by his black dog. The old man did not seem to have noticed at all. I was quite dumbfounded in my astonishment.
“There. you see,” began the pastry cook. “This is the way he acts when he comes in here, two or three times a month, it is. But I can get nothing out of him except the fact that he was a former valet of Count S., that he is now in charge of this house here, and that every day – – for many years now — he expects the arrival of his master’s family. My brother spoke to him one day about the strange noises at night; but he answered calmly, “Yes, people say the ghosts walk about in the house. But do not believe it, for it is not true.” The hour was now come when fashion demanded that the elegant world of the city should assemble in this attractive shop. The doors opened incessantly, the place was thronged, and I could ask no further questions.
This much I knew, that Count P.’s information about the ownership and the use of the house were not correct; also, that the old steward, in spite of his denial, was not living alone there, and that some mystery was hidden behind its discolored walls. How could I combine the story of the strange and gruesome singing with the appearance of the beautiful arm at the window? That arm could not be part of a wrinkled body of an old woman; the singing, according to the pastry cook’s story, could not come from the throat of a blooming and youthful maiden.
I decided in favor of the arm, as it was easy to explain to myself that some trick of acoustics had made the voice sound sharp and old, or that it had appeared so only in the cook’s fear-distorted imagination. Then I thought of the smoke, the strange odors, the oddly formed crystal bottle that I had seen, and soon the vision of a beautiful creature held enthralled by fatal magic stood as if alive before my mental vision. The old man became a wizard who, perhaps quite independently of the family he served, had set up his devil’s kitchen in the deserted house. My imagination had begun to work, and in my dreams that night I saw clearly the hand with the sparkling diamond on its finger, the arm with the shining bracelet.
From out this gray mist there appeared a sweet face with sadly imploring blue eyes, then the entire exquisite figure of a beautiful girl. And I saw that what I had thought was mist was the fine steam flowing out in circles from a crystal bottle held in the hands of the vision.
“Oh, fairest creature of my dreams,” I cried in rapture. “Reveal to me where thou art!”
To be continued …