I trembled in a vague fear and suddenly I was assailed by a fearful thought. People often have a sensation that suddenly comes over them, that is not born in them, as if it does not belong to them, but comes from somewhere outside of them, as if it is communicated to them somehow by a stranger. This sensation was so strong that I had the impression that the thought had been spoken out loud, as if someone near me had given a warning . . . in a whispering female voice. Yes indeed, warned . . . the sense of this strange thought was a warning. It was as if someone whispered to me that I should take care not to reveal the passageway that was indicated on my plan. I wanted to shake the thought away and attempted to attribute its emergence to the strange tranquility, which was so saturated with incense as to be almost tangible. It trickled incessantly from the old walls of the Sacristy, stirred up by the shaking of the demolition work of the adjacent building. The moonlight appeared filled with this trickle, as if it were made out of the grains of a silver sand that slipped through the hourglass of time.
The more stubbornly that I tried to turn my attention to observing my environment, the stronger the warning became. I needed to guard myself against revealing the blueprint; otherwise I would pull down a heavy misfortune upon myself. Again and again I frantically tried to contemplate the wonderful games of the moonlight and the more urgent and insistent the strange thought became. For a moment it seemed to me as if someone laid a hand on my shoulder and whispered into my ear. And then I sensed very perfectly, how a strange will tried to take control of me. I looked up and gazed into the dark, blazing eyes of the image above the cabinet.
Then it became painfully clear to me where I had seen those eyes before. It had been when the chase had passed by me; they were the eyes of the pursued woman. Even though I was not afraid, I was so startled, that I lost my senses. I did not cry out or run away, but I did something that was much worse. Slowly, my eyes fixed on those in the painting; I pulled myself back, step by step, as if to escape from a very real danger.
Then I gripped the large church key in my hand, like someone uses the nearest thing at hand as a weapon when ambushed by robbers. Finally, I was back in the church and slammed shut the door to the Sacristy. It echoed from lost alcoves in the darkness. The paintings and statues appeared to have changed their positions and looked scornfully down on me.
I quickly left the church.
The rest of the night was sleepless until morning. Even though I only first fell asleep at dawn, I awoke anyway, so that I could immediately begin work in the Sacristy. Despite the nightly warning, I was determined to uncover the passageway. My fear was during the night. My fear had no power over me during the day that could deter me.
As I entered the building site, I found the archivist already there, driven to come by the same impatience as I had been. I selected a number of skilled workers and told them how to proceed in removing the immense cabinet from its place. The painting over the cabinet, which I regarded with some trepidation, was ordinary, like dozens of other paintings, hidden under a thick dirty crust, of which little more than a pale spot—indicating the face of the portrayed saint—was clearly recognizable. It was not in the least sinister, and I was going to ask the archivist what he thought about the painting, but he spoke to me first.
“Listen,” he said to me, “it must have been very beautiful in this nun’s cloister. Yesterday, late in the evening, I took up the chronicle, and I thought that it might contain a few things of interest for us about this passage. I believe that I have already told you a few of the things that the chronicle reports of this cloister. Yesterday I read through everything once more, because I hoped to find some reference point for our research.
The modesty of the nuns, to the discredit of their cloister, in this place gave way to the most indulgent indecencies. They often gave themselves over to the worst excesses and the chronicle reports that quite often the clinking of glasses and cheeky laughter continued through the entire night and outraged the neighborhood. It must have been a type of lunacy, a frenzy of madness, that the entire cloister participated in and it incited the nuns to the wildest orgies. Quite often the citizens even saw the church itself lit, from which the noises came. They could hear from the sound that the nuns had chosen to use God’s house itself as the place for their celebrations.
The chaplains from the city were drawn to participate in these orgies and at first came only at night and entered the cloister in secret, but later they even came openly in the light of day. They were often seen leaving the cloister staggering, with bloated faces. Drunken nuns were seen lurching around the courtyard and in the cloister gardens. It is no wonder that the pious citizens, to whom these passions were an abomination, made a protest to the Bishop. The Bishop himself came to investigate, but he found nothing more than a group of pious nuns, that led a contemplative, prayerful holy life in this cloister, as was proper for the brides of Christ. And a survey of the clerics in the city only confirmed this observation.
The defaming accuser was brought before the court and sentenced to a hard punishment under pressure from the authority of the Bishop. As the Bishop turned his back on the city the shameful behaviors began once again. But no one dared to protest any more for fear of being punished. Of all the loose living nuns, sister Agathe was the worst. The orgies in the cloister were not enough to satisfy her. She must have been a very strange woman with a terrible and devilish rutting passion that tore at everything and destroyed it. She must have possessed the insatiability of a predator; because the chronicle tells of her, that she often left the cloister through a secret passage and spent nights running around the city.
She was a guest in the brothels and taverns of the suburbs and sat among the rabble, among the gamblers and drunkards, as if she belonged with them. She did this even though she was of noble birth, from one of the most prominent families of the country. Generations of carefully concealed vices from within her family were revealed in her and assumed a disgusting appearance. If she liked a young man, she wrapped herself around him and would not release him. With wild abandon, like a bacchanalian, she would pull him to herself. The entire city soon knew of her and spoke of her as a nightmare or a ghost.
They called her simply, “The wicked nun”. Then it happened that venereal disease slipped into the city. Agathe was also infected with it, but she was unable to contain her sexual drives and continued her wild living. As before, she danced in the taverns, sat among the rabble and fell upon young men in the street like a vampire.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Dr. Holzbock interrupted himself. “You look ill.”
I asked him to stop his story for a moment and turned away, in order to check the progress of the work. The floorboards were torn up all around the immense cabinet and the mortar was scraped away from the wall. But it was not possible to move the cabinet even an inch.
“I believe,” said the foreman, “that the cabinet is anchored into the wall.”
It could not be otherwise, but then it must have been anchored to the wall at the same time that the Sacristy was built. That meant our blueprint was wrong or—we looked at each other, and the archivist spoke my thought out loud.
“The passage goes in through the cabinet.”
I was excited and beside myself with impatience over the new revelation and angry over so many obstacles.
“How are we going to find the way through? We would have to break the entire cabinet into pieces and we can’t do that. It is part of the church inventory. What should we do?”
The archivist was almost as impatient as I was. While Dr. Holzbock considered, I searched the entire cabinet, pressed on all the protruding ornaments, pulled out all the drawers, at least the ones that were not locked, and measured all the dimensions, in order to perhaps find the hidden door out of some curious relationship.
“Don’t bother yourself over it,” said the archivist. “This cabinet, which has held its secret safe against generations of the curious, will not reveal itself to us either, without further counsel. We must search in the archives, perhaps . . .”
I was not listening anymore; as my eyes estimated the height of the cabinet, my glance fell upon the painting that was hanging over it, and suddenly it seemed to me as if this painting must give me the key. To the amazement of the archivist, I ordered a ladder to be placed against the cabinet and climbed up. Such close proximity to the pale face, being eye to eye with it, brought the horror of the night back to me. But I composed myself and began to examine the portrait. The thick layer of dirt left little more to be recognized, even this close, than that it portrayed someone in the garment of a nun, whose hair was free of ribbons or a hood, and whose head was surrounded by curly hair. Strangely enough, this hair looked more like snakes tangled together, like someone might paint the head of Medusa. But the painting was in such poor condition that you could not be certain about it. She wore an ornament on a string around her neck. It was not a cross, like one might find on a nun, but a type of brooch, a decoration, an ornament. It looked like a small lily that was enclosed in a polygon. It seemed to me as if I had seen the same ornament down below on the cabinet as well. The lily had been enclosed in a hexagon, a rhombus and again in a pentagon as it was here.
“Doctor,” I cried as I climbed down the ladder. “I believe that I am on the trail of a mystery.”
“And you have picked up the trail up there in the portrait?”
“I believe so. The key is a lily in a pentagram. Let’s search for it.”
Although I knew very well that I had seen the ornament, I was so confused at the time; that I could not immediately find it again. The sections of the cabinet seemed to me as if they were swimming in a fog, and I struggled in vain against a tiredness, which I now, in the decisive moment, could not explain. It almost felt the way frostbite feels.
Then the archivist cried out next to me, “Here is a lily in a pentagon. Now what?”
My tension had suddenly returned again, it was inescapable; there was no doubt about the outcome. I examined the lily, all the curious workers stood around us. It seemed to me as if the wood gave a little beneath my hand. Then I pressed with all my strength—there was a groan that went through the ancient cabinet, a deep moan coming from its deepest depths and a narrow gap cut through the cabinet from the top to bottom. We put our shoulders to it, but the rusty hinges, not used for centuries, gave way only grudgingly. We had to open the door jerkily and had time to marvel at the secret inner mechanism.
Externally, this also followed portions of the cabinet’s broad formation, with pressure on the lily the united surfaces visibly separated to expose a door. At the same moment, in which this was opening, the drawers of the cabinet were pushed back to the left and to the right out-of-the-way and we stood before the back wall of the cabinet. There it was not hard to find the button which we had to press in order to open the door as well.