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The Head by Karl Hans Strobl

Translated by

Joe E. Bandel

Copyright 2013 Joe E. Bandel

 

The Head

It was entirely dark in the room and all the curtains were shut. Not a glimmer of light came in from the street and it was entirely quiet. The stranger, my friend and I compulsively held our shaking hands together. There was a terrible fear around us . . . in us.

And then a gaunt, white glowing hand came up to us from out of the darkness and began to write on the table at which we were sitting, with the pencil that we had prepared for it, which was lying there. We could not see what the hand wrote, yet we felt it within ourselves at the same time, as if it were written in fiery letters right before our eyes.

Here is the story of this hand, and the man, to whom it once belonged, that was scribbled down on the paper there in the deep darkness of midnight by the white, glowing hand:

. . . — As I stepped upon the red cloth that covered the well-worn steps . . . there was something odd about my heart. It swung back and forth in my chest like a large pendulum. But the edge of the pendulum weight was as fine as a hair and sharp as a razor and when the pendulum touched the edge of my chest at the end of its swing, I felt a cutting pain there – and had trouble breathing – so that I wanted to gasp out loud. But I bit my teeth together so that no sound could come out, and I balled up my shackled fists so tightly that blood poured out from beneath the nails.

Then I was at the top. Everything was in order; they were all just waiting for me. — I calmly let my neck be shaved and then asked for permission to speak to the people one last time. They granted my request. I turned around and looked over the endless crowd that was pressed up close, head upon head, standing around the guillotine, all those stupid, dull, bestial faces, partly filled with crude curiosity, partly filled with lust: that mass of people, that 14,000, that I scorned to even call human — the entire affair seemed so ridiculous to me that I had to laugh out loud.

Yet, then I saw the official looking face of my executioner filled with strict folds, scowling at me. It was downright impudent of me to not take this more seriously. Yet, I wanted to incite the good citizens a little more and quickly began my speech.

“Citizens,”  I said, “citizens, I die for you and for freedom. You have misunderstood me; you have condemned me; but I love you. As proof of my love, listen to my testament. Everything that I possess is yours, here . . .”

I turned my back to them, and made a motion that they could not misunderstand. . . There was a bellowing of outrage . . . I lay down quickly and with a sigh of relief placed my head in the opening . . . there was a rushing hiss . . . I felt an icy burn in my neck, then my head fell into the basket.

Then it seemed to me, as if I had stuck my head under water and my ears were being filled with it.  The dark and confusing sounds of the outer world that pressed at me became a mere buzzing and humming in my temples. On the entire cross-section of my neck I had the feeling as if ether had evaporated there in large quantities.

I know that my head lay in the wicker basket — my body lay up above on the frame, and yet I had the feeling that the complete separation had not yet occurred. I felt my body lightly kicking and dropping down on the left side. Behind my back my manacled, balled up fists were lightly twitching; my fingers forcefully contracted, then stretched out and pulled back together. I also felt the blood streaming out of the stump of my neck and how this draining of blood made the motions become ever weaker. Also the ability to feel my body became more weak and faint, until the lower half below my severed neck was completely gone.

I had lost my body. In the complete darkness from my severed neck downwards I suddenly sensed red spots. The red spots were like sparks of fire in a dark stormy night. They flew around each other,  flared up and spread themselves out like drops of oil on the still surface of water . . . when the edges of the red spots touched each other I sensed electrical shocks in my eyelids, and the hair on the top of my head stood up. Then the red spots began to spin around themselves, faster, ever faster . . . countless numbers of burning fiery wheels, glowing fluidic slices of the sun . . . there was a rushing and a whirling of the discs with long tongues of fire licking out from behind them, and I had to close my eyes . . . I still felt the fiery red discs inside me . . . they stuck to me like grains of sand between my teeth and in every joint. Finally, the discs of flame faded away; their frantic spinning became slower, then one after the other became extinguished, and then for the second time it became very dark for me from my severed neck downwards. This time it was forever.

A sweet fatigue and laziness came over me, a letting go; my eyes became heavy. I didn’t open them anymore, and yet I could see everything around me. It was as if my eyelids were made out of glass and had become transparent. I saw everything as if through a milk-white veil, over which delicate, bloodshot veins branched outward.  But I could see clearly and further than I could when I still had my body. My tongue had become lame and lay heavy and paralyzed in my mouth like a lump of clay.

But my sense of smell had refined itself one thousand times; I not only saw things; I smelled them, each different, with its own particular, personal odor.

There were three other heads in the woven wicker basket beneath the notch of the guillotine blade besides my own, two male and one female. Bits of makeup clung to the rosy colored cheeks on the woman’s head;  a golden arrow stuck in the powdered, coiffed hair, and dainty, diamond earrings were in the little ears. The heads of the two men lay with their faces turned downwards in a pool of dried blood. An old, badly healed wound showed across the temple of one; the hair of the other was already gray and sparse. The woman’s head had its eyes shut and did not move. But I knew that she was watching me through the closed eyelids . . .

We lay like that for hours. I observed how the rays of the sun moved upwards across the frame of the guillotine. Then it was evening, and I began to freeze. My nose was quite stiff and the cold of evaporation on the cross-section of my neck became uncomfortable.

Suddenly there was a coarse shouting. It came nearer, much nearer, and suddenly I felt how a rough, powerful fist seized my head firmly by the hair and pulled it out of the basket. Then I felt as if a strange pointed object was pressed into my neck — the tip of a lance. A crowd of drunken day laborers and soldiers were doing something with our heads. A powerful, lanky man with a red bloated face held the lance with my head on its tip in his hands and waved it high above the wildly excited and screaming crowd.

A knot of men and women were fighting over the division of the loot and pulled at the hair and ears of the woman’s head. They rolled around wildly — entangled with each other — fighting with hands and feet — with teeth and nails.

Then the fight was at an end. They parted from each other. The crowd of disappointed ones that pressed around were clamoring and screaming at the ones that had managed to carry a piece of the booty away.

The head lay on the ground, defaced, defiled, with traces of fists everywhere, the ears were torn off by the violent jerks with which they had removed the earrings. The carefully coiffed hair was disheveled, the powdered braids of the dark blonde hair lay in the dust of the street. One nostril was cut as if by a sharp instrument; on the forehead was the imprint of a boot heel. The eyelids were half opened, the broken, glassy eyes stared straight out.

Finally the crowd moved forward. The four heads were stuck on long spikes. The anger of the people was mostly directed at the head of the man with the gray hair. The man must have been especially unpopular. I didn’t know him. They spit on him and threw clumps of filth at him. Then a handful of street dirt hit him on the ear — what was that? Did he just move, softly, lightly; unnoticeably, perceptible only to me, or was it only a band of muscles?

Night fell. They requested that our heads be placed together on the tips of the iron fence surrounding the palace.  I didn’t know the palace, either. Paris was large. Armed citizens lounged around the courtyard and set up a large bonfire. They sang bawdy songs and told jokes. There were bellows of laughter. The smell of grilled lamb wafted over to me. The fire gave off an aroma of costly rosewood. The savage horde had hauled the entire interior of the castle out into the courtyard and they were now burning it piece by piece. A graceful, elegantly upholstered sofa was brought up to the edge. It was now its turn — but they hesitated; they didn’t throw the sofa into the fire. A young woman lunged forward, in a shirt that was open at the front and showed the full, solid shapes of her breasts. She spoke with lively hand movements to one of the men.

Was she asking them to give the costly piece to her? Did she suddenly desire to think of herself as a “duchess?

The men still hesitated. The woman pointed at the fence, on whose pointed tips our heads were stuck and then again to the sofa. The men hesitated — finally she pushed them aside, tore a sword out of its sheath away from one of the armed men and with the help of the blade began to pull the little enameled nails from out of the wooden frame of the sofa, which held the heavily stretched silk in place. Then the men were helping. Then she was pointing again at our heads. One of the men came closer to the fence with hesitant steps. He searched, then climbed up the iron rods and took down the abused, disfigured head of the woman.

A terror shook the man, but he acted as if under a compulsion. It was as if the young woman over there by the fire, the woman in the red skirt and open fronted shirt ruled all those men around her with her wildly blazing predatory gaze. With a stiff arm he carried the head up to the fire by the hair. The woman seized the dead head with a wild, joy filled outcry. She twirled it around, swung it by the long hair twice, three times, over the flaming fire.

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At a crossroads

By Karl Hans Strobl 1917 (Lemuria)

Translated by Joe Bandel

Copyright Joe Bandel

Three gray female giants sat at a crossroads. One had her feet propped up against a woodsman’s cottage and was scratching the dirt out from between her toes with a dry bony finger.

“Hu—Hu” went the wind through the firs trees and shook them. The woodsman and his wife in the room inside convulsed in the paralyzing terror of a nightmare. A child in a crib whimpered softly.

The second made herself very small and cut at the wooden crucifix along the side of the road with a large, sharp knife. First she cut long splinters from the trunk and the crossbeam of the wooden gallows. She sang in a murmur, “Horum pitschor—rum…Rex Judae orum.”

Sliver by sliver she cut away at the wood of the savior’s nose until it was entirely gone and the white spot shone out of the dirty and weathered wood. Then she took the knife and scraped with the point of it on the navel of the wooden body. She turned it like a mixer in her hands, faster, ever faster, until a large deep hole was bored into the body. Then she blew the remaining woodchips and dust out of the hole…her eyes glowed in the dark like those of a wolf.

The third sat upright. Her head towered high over the tops of the black fir trees. Something squirmed in her hand, a fat, plump farmer. Snap—she bit off his right foot. She crunched and chewed pleasantly…

“Oh,..I…,” whimpered the farmer. “Let…let me go.”

With a pleasant grin she looked at the fat morsel in her hand…

“I have a wife…my children are waiting for me at home.”

“So,” said the giantess…”My wife…I can’t die…”

“So,” she grinned again. “There is your wife.”

And she set him down at the window in front of the room. It was light inside. He tried to stand up but collapsed.

The giantess reached into her mouth, “Here is your foot.”

Now the farmer stood on his toes. On the table inside was a lamp… The table was covered, two mugs of beer, two half full glasses, two plates full of bones. In the middle of the table was a dish with a half carved goose and another with seal flesh. On a chair by the door was a riding coat and broad staple hat with two tassels in back. On a chair by the table was a jacket and lederhosen. On the floor in front of the curtain that hid the wide marriage bed was a pair of high boots and a pair of slippers. The farmer turned away from the window. He was pale as a corpse.

“My children,” he stammered.

The giantess led him to the pig sty. The farmer trembled as the giantess lifted off the wooden roof with a jerk so he could see inside. There was a fearful stink. A boy sat cowering in the corner, motionless…dirt on his face with bulging eyes. In the other corner a mother sow stood over a little girl and bored into the white flesh with her snout, tearing large chunks out of the tender body. The little body was still twitching and the warm blood made the piglets drunk as they pushed and rolled around in it. The two in the bed heard a scream, a piercing scream.

High above the black tree tops the giantess placed the fat morsel in her sturdy mouth with a pleasant grin. Snap—the hard bones broke—fat and blood ran out of the corners of her mouth.

At the crossroads the second had kindled a fire out of cow dung and dry fir branches under the feet of the crucifix. The naked feet smoldered in the hot flames of cow dung and dry fir branches. The entire body writhed and twisted in pain. The hollow of the body was stuffed with pages she had torn out of an old prayer book. When the tongues of flame reached up and the old yellow paper began to crackle and glow she jumped over the fire three times in glee. Then with a serious gesture she took the rosary from around the neck and threw bead after bead into the fire.

Then she hummed, ”Ho—rum pi—tsho—rum—Rex Ju—dae—orum.”

Large heavy black drops of blood dripped from the cut off nose, over the pale face and down the distorted body into the fire where they sizzled and died.

At the woodsman’s cottage the giantess had smashed the chimney flue with her big toe. The bricks crashed as they fell down into the fire place. With a scream the woodsman’s wife came out of the bad dream. Everything was quiet. The clock had stopped.

“Hu—Hu,” went the wind through the fir trees and shook them.

“Father,” she shook the man. “Father, what is going on…”

She shook harder, still harder, despairing, “What is going on!”

She grabbed his hand… It was entirely cold… “Jesus Maria—Josef…make me a light!”

A sudden gust of wind tore the clouds apart. The moonlight fell in its purity into the black fir forest and onto the crossroads. Tatters of fog hovered over the tree tops. They slowly rose and swam in the glittering moonlight. In the distant village a hound began to bay noisily. In the woodsman’s cottage a lamp was lit… Orum—orum— went the toads in the swamp.

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As I expressed my willingness to be at her service, she began to complain through tears, that her husband must be sick.

“He goes around so strangely disturbed, scarcely speaking a word for days and tosses around back and forth sleeplessly in bed at night. He has already promised for several days that he was going to take some vacation and leave immediately, because he was certainly over worked and tired, but he cannot be persuaded to leave the city.”

“My God,” she said. “I scarcely speak of doctors any more. He flares up at those words and reproaches me, as if I am being degrading to him.”

I agreed with Frau Blanka that she must try convincing her husband to take a trip. A few moments later Anders came back home.

He greeted me, obviously delighted, and also gave his wife a greeting. But some sentiment told me that something stood between the two spouses, a shadow, a formless thing, an invisible influence that worked on both and separated them. This influence worked on Frau Blanka as anxiety and on Anders —at first I believed I was wrong, but I saw my observation confirmed—as revulsion for his wife; fear mixed with revulsion. That seemed highly strange to me, because I knew that earlier Anders had been uncommonly in love with his wife.

After a short, indifferent conversation Frau Blanka withdrew, in order for me to have the promised opportunity to speak with Hans. She was scarcely out of the room when Hans seized me by the arm and pulled me into the bedroom.

“Come,” he whispered. “You will see it.”

Over a sofa—and across from the bed—hung the painting from the Sacristy, a green curtain hung next to it and was pulled back. It was a somewhat eerie portrait, a face that seemed to speak of wild sins, and if it really did portray sister Agathe, then it did a good job of showing the blasphemous impulses of this nun that were reported in the old chronicle.

I moved over toward the painting with the intention of taking it down from the wall. I wanted Anders to know that his absurd fantasies must give way to reality. But he sprang at me with such a ferocious movement that I was frightened as he pushed me back.

“What you intend is impossible. It now hangs here on the wall and no power in the world can take it away.”

Apparently he had forgotten that just a few days ago he had invited me to his home in order to convince me of the correctness of his explanation.

“But why,” I asked, “have you allowed this painting to be brought into your bedroom? This face can bring bedevilment into the most peaceful of dreams.”

“I already told you,” answered Anders, “that I was not at home when the painting arrived. The man that brought it hung it right there without asking; and now I can’t get away from it. I’ve tried to pull a curtain over it. But—“

His voice became very hoarse with excitement.

“She will not tolerate the curtain. When I pull it shut in the evening, it is pulled back again around midnight. She is always watching me, continuously, with her terrible eyes. I cannot bear it. And do you know why she looks at me that way? I will tell you.”

He pulled me away from the painting and whispered so softly that I could scarcely understand:

“She has sworn to have revenge on me, and she will keep her word. She is planning something terrible, and I believe that I know what she intends.”

And suddenly he interrupted himself to ask me, what at the time, I thought to be and unrelated question.

“Have you really looked at my wife?”

But before I could answer, he continued.

“Nonsense! What I imagine at times is nonsense.”

And then he returned to what he had been saying, “She wants to destroy me, because I discovered the subterranean passageway; because I ordered the shaft to be dug down from the street and in doing that allowed her pursuers to follow her into the tomb.”

Anders dismissed my objections with a hand movement.

“Believe me doctor, it is true. I have considered this thing very carefully, and if you have seen what I have seen, you would agree with me.”

I was only later to discover what Anders meant with this dark insinuation. These words are impressed upon my memory with utmost vividness, and I will always see his face close to mine as he whispered them to me. His entire behavior gave me the impression that he was very ill, but my advice for him to leave the city and go into the mountains for a few weeks was to no avail.

“I must stay here,” he said. “It would be in vain if I tried to escape her. She could seek me out at three thousand meters just as easily as here.”

The weirdest thing about his nature was that he openly admitted to having to do battle with some ghostly apparition as if it were a real power. I made Frau Blanka aware of it and told her that her influence would be needed in this matter.

“Influence?” she said, and the poor woman was almost in tears. “I don’t even have enough influence that I’m allowed to send for the doctor for him.”

In order to do the woman a favor, the next morning I sent my friend Dr. Engelhorn to visit Anders. But the architect fell into such a rage that Engelhorn had to beat a hasty retreat. At that time I was called away to search for an important document in the archives of Castle Pernstein. It was several days before I found the document; but during the search I also found several other highly interesting items and my stay was extended for several days.

On my return I used the train for only a few stations and then climbed out in order to hike through the beautiful forest to reach the city. In passing by a popular tourist resort I chanced to glance over the fence of the garden and saw Hans Anders sitting at a table. I must confess that I had entirely forgotten his story because of my work, and in that moment it weighed very heavy on my heart that I had neglected my friend so very much.

In order to immediately find out how things were going with him, I stepped into the pub garden and greeted him. I saw that Anders was very drunk, even though he was normally a very sober man, and I immediately thought that it must have something to do with his dark story.

“Oh doctor Archivist,” he called out to me. I am very happy, extraordinarily pleased, and greet you in the name of science.”

While I drank my quarter bottle of Moravian wine, he drank the rest, and only as it began to turn dusk did I succeed in walking him home. We were going slowly along the river and could see the lights of the Königsmühle before us through the fog filled valley, when Anders finally began to speak about that which, as I had suspected, he was still incessantly preoccupied with.

“Now I finally know what she intends.”

“But don’t talk about her so much,” I began, “as if she is a real person.”

Hans Anders looked at me and didn’t understand my objection; he was so comfortable in his imaginings.

“Do you know what happened right in front of my eyes? It is terrible. She has taken over my wife.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She has taken over my wife and the transformation is going on in front of my eyes. It began with the eyes; a strange, lurking gaze surfaced in them, with which she watched me, my goings and comings, all of my movements. When I said something, then it smoldered in those fearful eyes like scorn. But then even her figure started to change. My wife is shorter and stockier, the woman that now sits near me and sleeps or pretends to be asleep and watches me beneath closed lids, is more slender and taller. She encircles me, spins me in her web. She has murdered my wife and taken possession of her body, in order to be near me, and on the day, in which she looks exactly like the portrait on the wall, then she will completely take me over as well. But I am determined, to pre-empt her.”

I realized with horror that the nervous excitement of the man had already made such progress that you could speak of it as a mental disorder. It was high time to move forward and with energy. I was even thinking it over the next day with my friend, Dr. Engelhorn, what to do, in order to help the poor woman, when Frau Blanka came to visit me. She looked much harried, pale with sunken, shifty eyes and had become so thin that she looked somewhat taller to me.

“I know everything, gracious lady,” I said.

At that she began to cry.

“How could you know? You can only imagine what I suffer. My life has become a hell for me. In my case that is not just a phrase, but the bitter truth. I cannot stand it any longer. My husband has been entirely transformed. I see very well that he has revulsion for me. He watches me silently; I always feel his terrible gaze on me, and he acts as if he expects me to do something evil to him.

Sometimes his turns around suddenly with an angry movement, as if he believes that I am creeping after him. He says almost nothing at all, and when I talk to him, he answers as if every word is a trap. And when I attempt to ask about the cause of his strange behavior he laughs at me so fearfully . . .

Last night, well he was gone for the entire day and came home a little drunk—just as I was in the act of undressing; he was suddenly standing behind me. Before that he had been in his room and I had seen through the glass door that he was reading a journal and paging through it. But all at once he was standing there behind me. He had silently snuck up on me, and when I turned around, he seized me by the neck and said:

“Such a beautiful neck and already severed once.”

I became afraid and wanted to know what he meant. But he only laughed so horribly and waved at the old portrait that hangs in our bedroom.

“Ask her, or better yet; ask yourself.”

I could not sleep that night and thought about his strange words. But the next morning I got up and went into his room to get the journal, because it seemed to me as if it must have something to do with his altered being. It still lay on the writing desk and was completely filled with my husband’s handwriting. I remembered that he had been writing in the journal this past week; in a strange haste, often as if upset and so irritable that the slightest sound in his vicinity was enough to set him off, and it had something to do with me, that had him working there so very fascinated and agitated. But as I began to think about reading it a strange fear overcame my curiosity. I dared not even open it because I . . . because I feared to experience something horrible.

That’s why I’m bringing this journal to you and asking you to read it, and then tell me what it is about; at least share with me as much as you think is good for me to know.”

With that, she handed me the journal which I am now handing over to you, Herr Judge. You will find the most highly remarkable things inside, and I will leave it to your own ingenuity, to make some sense out of this story that is still very confusing to me. (We have placed the detailed account of Hans Anders at the beginning of this report.)

Dr. Engelhorn and I attempted to talk the woman out of her concerns and, even though we were convinced that danger was very near, acted as if she had nothing to be afraid about. So we managed to reassure her somewhat and she went back to her house, after we promised that we would read her husband’s journal and give a report about it to her immediately the very next day; and that was an unforgivable omission. This absence of presence of mind, of vigorous resolve on the part of her friends, has cost the poor woman her life. So it was with us men, we saw the danger very clearly, but we failed to deal with it in time. As we–Dr. Engelhorn and I–read through the journal, we looked at each other.

“He is insane,” I said.

But Dr. Engelhorn is a strange man. Although he is a representative of the exact sciences; he still preserves, just as well, a type of superstitious belief in all kinds of “night conditions” of the human soul.  With every opportunity he repeats the saying, “It gives more things between heaven and earth . . .ect.” And when medical science is confronted by a puzzle, nobody is happier about it than Dr. Engelhorn. Therefore I was not at all surprised when he looked at me doubtfully.

“Insane? I don’t know whether I can agree with you. I do not get that impression from him. There are circumstances, where insanity and despair seem similar and yet it is not insanity. But in order to explain this to you I must . . .”

“Well, it just as well could be,” I interrupted him.

But he simply shrugged his shoulders at me.

“I don’t know.”

“This conversation, Herr Judge, took place late that night. The next morning I heard that Frau Blanka had been murdered. But what precipitated this terrible deed can only be learned from Hans Anders himself. We can only suspect that through this murder he thought to free himself of this spirit, and that the destruction of the portrait had something to do with it as well.

It is up to the court to decide these things, or perhaps the last word in this strange story will be spoken by a psychiatrist.”

That was the statement of the archivist Dr. Holzbock. Two days later the mysterious case of Hans Anders was brought to a type of conclusion. They found him in the interrogation room, in a sitting position, leaning back against the wall. One hand was on his heart, the right arm hanging down limply, in such a twisted manner that the prison doctor shook his head at it when he began his examination. He found that the arm had been dislocated and broken several times as if it had been crushed by a terrible force. But the doctor determined the actual cause of death was a heart attack due to sudden terror.

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The excavated earth lay around its mouth; some boards and two red lanterns gave a warning to the passersby. But the boards which covered the opening to the tomb had been thrown to the side. I tore open the door of the fence and ran— without even searching for the night watchman, who must have been somewhere else in the large area—between the rubble piles into the great court, that was still identifiable in the remains of the surrounding building.

I don’t know which voice told me that I had to be there; it was a compulsion which I could not escape. I had scarcely found a hiding place behind the rubble of a great wall when I saw that the court was filled with figures.

What I saw then is almost impossible to describe. Everything was like in a dream and yet completely clear. The figures came from the church, which I saw in front of me in the moonlight. But whether they all came through the door, which stood wide open, or whether they came pouring out from the walls; it was impossible for me to determine. It just seemed to me that there were so many of them, that they could not have come out through the door all at once. But the strangest thing was that I saw them all in living motion, waving at each other and it seemed as if they were shouting; they called to each other, pushed each other aside and pressed forward with wild gestures. I never even questioned how it was that even though I heard the sound of many steps, I did not hear any of the words that I saw people speaking. I could hear none of the shouts. I had the impression that I was seeing a performance on a stage, from which I was separated by a thick glass wall, so that I could see the performance but not hear anything. This impression became so strong that the actors in this tumultuous scene even appeared to be costumed. For the most part they wore the comfortable and tight fitting garb of the 16th century.  But several of them were looser, like the clothing of students, or dressed more serious and solemn, like councilmen.

There was a certain degree of terror in which all concern for myself had disappeared and I lived only through my eyes; while at the same time all of my other senses appeared to be shut off. I had reached this level, and I can vouch for the fact that everything I saw actually happened. The entire court was filled with figures and several times they came so near to my hiding place that I could see their staring faces perfectly.

After some milling around they all directed their attention to the open door of the church, and a group of men came out of it, in whose midst a woman was being led. They pushed her forwards with their fists and pulled on the rope they had tied around her neck. I saw her shrug her shoulders, as if to get rid of some annoying insect.  One of the students pressed the others back, rushed forward, appeared to throw some insults into her face, and struck her two times on the head with the side of a polished sword. Then the woman raised her smooth, white forehead and looked at the man with dark flaming eyes. It was sister Agathe, the wicked nun. With incessant beatings and kicks they pulled her up into the middle of the court yard, where a number of black clothed councilmen stood.

I saw her figure stand up straight in the pale, fearful moonlight in front of a group of men, in which the common hatred of the entire crowd seemed to be embodied. The white hood was slid back from the head of the nun and she looked just like she did in the painting in the Sacristy. Then one of the councilmen stepped forward, and while the crowd pressed forward from all sides, he broke a white stick over the head of the nun and flung it down at her feet with a gesture of dismissal. At that the people drew back and left a place free, where the nun now stood next to a block. From the block arose a man in a red cloak. I saw all the gruesome details of the execution.

I saw how the man pulled out a polished broadsword and threw down his red cloak as he opened the gown of the nun so that her white throat and beautiful shoulders were visible, and how he forced her to her knees in front of the block. I wanted to scream and yet was thankful that her dark, threatening eyes were finally turned away from me; which in those final moments had been rigidly turned toward my hiding place, as if she had seen me there. Then her head lay on the block, and I saw the sword swing high in the moonlight; then a jet of blood sprayed out. But it did not fall to the earth, not a single drop fell into the dust, instead it remained in the air, as if it were frozen in that moment, while the head fell from the block, and as if following the last desire of the executed, rolled straight towards me.

At that the crowd threw their hats into the air and broke into a tremendous celebration; which I saw perfectly, even though I heard no sound. And in a sudden impulse they all rushed toward the corpse, pushed, beat and dragged it around as if their anger was not yet entirely satisfied.

But the head kept rolling, further, without changing its direction, straight toward me, and finally remained lying right in front of my hiding place. The dark flaming eyes looked at me and I heard words, the first words of the entire terrible scene, from out of the mouth of the head.

“You shall remember the wicked nun.”

At that everything disappeared in front of me, the tumult of the crowd, the head, the executioner and his block, and only the red crescent of jetting, frozen blood remained floating for a moment in the green moonlight.

There remains nothing more to add, other than, the next morning the corpse of sister Agathe was found in a terrible condition in the tomb. It was disfigured by kicks and blows, all of the limbs were broken and the head had been completely severed from the body by a smooth cut. It was a suspected case of sexual lunacy and a thorough investigation was begun, during the course of which I was also questioned. But the authorities were not able to reach a conclusion, because I guarded myself well and refrained from telling what I had seen that night.

 

A fearful crime occurred on the morning of the 17th; July 19 . . . the entire city was in an uproar. The serving maid of engineer and architect Hans Anders after several fruitless knocks on the bedroom door finally shook it around ten o’clock, found that it was unlocked and entered the bedroom. A young woman lay in her bed in the middle of a pool of blood. There was nothing to be seen of the gentleman. The maid ran out of the room screaming and fainted. When it was finally gotten from her what she had seen, a young student from the 3rd floor, the calmest of the excited and frightened household, was sent immediately for an ambulance and the police.

The Commissioner was solidly convinced that a crime had been committed. The young woman had been dead for several hours; her head smoothly severed from her body by a powerful blow. Otherwise everything in the apartment remained in order. Only one of the paintings in the bedroom had been taken down from the wall and completely destroyed. The frame had been broken into small pieces and the canvas torn to shreds. No sign pointed to an entry of the murderer from the outside and it was confirmed that the occupants had gone to bed as usual last night. When the maid was asked if she had noticed any disputes lately between Anders and his wife, she thought for a moment and then declared that she had not noticed anything other than too much of a silence between both, and sometimes a nervous trembling of the wife.

Despite this statement there remained no other choice than to assume that Frau Anders had been murdered by her husband for no obvious reason and had then escaped. The statements of others in the household were consistent with those of the maid. But from out of all these statements nothing was found to indicate such a serious discord that could explain the fearful deed that followed. But the court doctor declared they should not be ensnared by the lack of any outward signs of discord, or be in complete sympathy with the husband. Especially when people of high culture, such as Hans Anders and his wife were, often played out such catastrophes silently and inwardly. This only strengthened the resolve of the police commissioner who immediately ordered the most zealous search for the husband of the murdered woman.

They found Hans Anders that afternoon on a bench in the city park, with a bare head, hat and walking stick nearby. At the time he was busily occupied in rolling a cigarette. He obeyed the request of the watchman without resistance, and even said that he had been thinking about going to the police himself and giving an explanation of the incident. He was in the best of moods and good spirits as he entered the office of the police commissioner and asked for a moment of his time. He said that he wanted to share with him why he had cut the head off the neck of the woman.

The commissioner stared at him in horror, “Herr, are you admitting to the murder of your wife?”

Anders smiled, “My wife?—No!”

And then he gave such a strange and incomprehensible statement that neither the commissioner nor the trial judge, to whom the case had been assigned that same evening, was able to make any sense of it. They could only determine this much; that Hans Anders had confessed to having cut off his wife’s head with a Turkish dagger from his weapons collection; but at the same time he claimed that his wife was not really his wife. When he saw that they did not understand him at all, he asked them to talk to his acquaintance, the archivist Dr. Holzbock, who would confirm everything through his own statement. Before they could even summon the archivist he appeared before them of his own free will and gave the following statement to the trial judge.

“I consider it my duty to bring some light through my statement into the fearful history of Hans Anders; as much as such a highly strange and mysterious matter can be brought into the light. I have been acquainted with him for quite some time. I found myself almost daily on the same rubble field of the Jesuit barracks where Anders was supervising the demolition work.

My historical and archaeological work is known to you and had also been known to him. I hoped to find several interesting discoveries in the removal of the centuries old building. Certain signs put me on the track of a mysterious passage, and Anders, whose competency as an architect stands without question, followed this track with so much ingenuity and luck that we succeeded in discovering an old tomb with several mummified corpses. You will recall that one of these corpses, on the day after the discovery of the tomb, was found in such a desecrated condition that is was considered a crime.

But at the time the investigation did not come to any conclusion.  Several days later Hans Anders came to me. I must confess that he appeared to be a completely different person from the last time I had seen him. He was restless, quite contrary to his usual energetic and amiable nature; at times absentminded and then surly, but at times he trembled, as if being tortured by a terrible fear.

This condition seemed so peculiar to me that I asked him what was wrong. He gave me an evasive answer. Finally, after a while, when he was no longer able to master his anxiety, he began by saying that the painting had been sent to the house.

“What painting?” —

“The portrait of sister Agathe, the wicked nun—don’t you remember, it hung so solidly in the Sacristy that no one could take it down from the wall—you said yourself that you couldn’t do it. Isn’t it true,” he said, “that you were not able to succeed in taking the painting down? But I swear to you, it is now hanging in my apartment.”

“Who brought it into your house?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know who brought it because I was gone. A strange man brought it, hung it on the wall and then left without saying who had sent it. There had to be some way of determining who sent it, so I finally went to the priest. But he didn’t know anything about it when I asked him; he couldn’t even give any evidence that the painting was part of the church inventory. He was very happy to see the painting go and had already been thinking about getting rid of it for quite some time. But the terrible thing is that I can’t put the painting back even if I wanted to. Why? Because it is now hanging just as solidly on my wall as it did earlier in the Sacristy. It is inconceivable, yet indisputable, and I ask you to visit me in order to convince yourself, that I am speaking the truth.”

I must confess that this sharing of the architect came across as sounding very strange to me, that the painting which it concerns, is claimed by Hans Anders to be the portrait of sister Agathe, one of the nuns, whose mummy we had found in the tomb. In order to calm the excited man, I promised that I would visit him within the next few days. I remembered my promise later at the end of the week as I was coincidently going past his apartment. Hans Anders was not there, but I met with his wife at home.

“Oh, I’m so happy,” she said, “that you have come to visit us. I was already determined to look you up, you and several other known acquaintances of my husband that he is close to. He thinks very highly of you, and I hope because of that you might have some influence on him.”

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The dark mouth of a passageway lay behind it. I wanted to plunge inside, but that archivist held me back.

“Patience, first we have to test whether the air inside is breathable.”

A candle was tied to a stick, lit and held in the passageway. It burned with a wild flame; great drops of melted wax fell into the darkness.

We entered the passage.

Several steps down, then straight, then down a few more steps, and then straight.

“I believe we have found the secret way of the wicked nun,” whispered the archivist.

He simply suspected it. I was certain of it. I was still in a very anxious mood, even though the air was relatively fresh.

“Mary and Joseph,” suddenly exclaimed the worker who had gone on ahead with the candle. He remained standing there. Here the walls sprang back into the darkness, the passage opened into a type of burial vault, in whose middle stood four wooden coffins on a wooden platform. They were very simple, unadorned coffins, whose form and shape went well back several centuries. The archivist lifted off one of the lids; a nun lay inside with a mummified dried out face, her hands crossed over her breasts, her clothing had disintegrated so that her flesh, which had withstood corruption, was visible in several places through the holes.

We took the lids off the remaining coffins as well. In the fourth coffin lay Agathe, the “wicked nun”. I recognized her immediately. She was the woman that had been pursued by the crowd of angry men at night; that had run past my house. It was the original image of the painting in the Sacristy.

Then next to me, the archivist said, “You know that one of these corpses must be that of sister Agathe, the “wicked nun”?

“I know. It is this one here. I recognize her again.  Just look, see how much better she looks than the others. Notice how the others are real corpses, but this one . . .”

Dr. Holzbock seized my hand and said, “We need to look for a way out of this passage. The air down here still could be dangerous. Forward!”

But the passage didn’t go very much further forward. After thirty steps we had to stop. A portion of the roof had collapsed there and filled up the passage. According to my calculations we were just under the street and I saw that the collapse must have happened a short time ago; apparently due to the shaking of the heavily laden dump trucks that were clearing away the debris of the old building. There was a risk and danger that still other portions could collapse; so I gave the order to push a shaft down through from the street, to investigate everything and stop all traffic in order to prevent an accident.

Then we returned back through the tomb. In passing, I became convinced that my observation had been right. She really did look different than the other three. It was almost as if she was alive. Her skin was still firm, had a glow of color, and her smooth forehead shone.  She was still very beautiful and it seemed to me, in the light of the candle, as if her eyes looked out from under her eyelids and followed what we were doing with cunning and sly glances.

When we arrived in the Sacristy I had to sit down. I was out of breath and my legs trembled.

“I must tell you,” said the archivist, “that I have come to the conclusion that one of the mummies down there is sister Agathe. My chronicle relates the story in its history of this cloister. The pestilence, whose priestess sister Agathe was, spread widely, until finally a terrible outrage broke out among the citizenry. They lay in ambush for the nun and wanted to kill her. But it seemed as if even the danger increased her lust for adventure.  She was driven to even wilder things than before, and what is even stranger; she had found an entire crowd of protectors, of young men who loved her, even though they knew that they would be poisoned by her. I have already said that she must have been a fearful woman. Her power over her lovers was unlimited. But one day an armed crowd showed up in front of the cloister and demanded the delivery of sister Agathe.

The rage of the people had risen to an extreme and they threatened to storm the cloister and burn it if the wicked nun was not handed over to them. The abbess was compelled to negotiate with the rebels. She promised to punish Agathe and pleaded for an extension of three days. The more reasonable of the attackers agreed to this, and to follow through on the acceptance of this request. After the three days were up the crowd appeared again before the cloister and were informed by the abbess that sister Agatha had suddenly become sick and died.

The chronicle is not very clear whether it was really a coincidence that came to the help of the abbess, or whether someone committed a murder in order to pacify the citizenry. The times were such that it could have been either way, but the hoped for calm did not appear. Despite the fact that a burial took place, that a coffin had been sunk into the earth; despite the convincing fact that a stone had been erected with the words, “The Wicked Nun” on the grave site; the rumor still arose that sister Agathe still lived.

As so often happens at the death of a very wicked or much loved person, it is hard to believe that they are really dead. That was the way it was with her as well. They wanted the nun to be alive, so they still saw her. They reported raids that she took, in which she fell upon the young men. Finally they were convinced that the abbess had played a joke on them, to avert the threat of danger.

Others, those that were inclined to believe in the death of sister Agathe, considered it a desecration of the sacred cemetery to have her corpse buried next to the bodies of the honest and pious citizens. The believers and the suspicious were united in their request to have the grave opened, so they could convince themselves that the nun was really inside. It must have been a terrible hatred that followed this woman.

When those in the cloister became aware of the intentions of the angry citizens, they removed the corpse from the grave one night and brought it back into the cloister. The chronicle describes the entire story as a serious uprising that had to be dealt with. When the citizens found the empty grave they drew up once more in a crowd in front of the cloister. The corpse of the nun was shown to them from out of a window. Stones and pieces of wood were thrown at the dead body. A shot was fired into it. The chronicle also adds that the most outraged were the young men who had loved her; those that had thought that she still lived.

Those in the cloister recognized that even the death of sister Agathe could not protect her corpse from the hatred of her persecutors. They kept her corpse and placed it in a tomb, as they always hid the bodies of those nuns, who had been murdered for some reason. Today we found that tomb. She lies on the same path on which she so often went upon her adventures.”

“That is true,” I said.

“And now you must tell me how you came to the conclusion that we had finally found the wicked nun. You had not yet heard the end to my story. How were you able to recognize one of the mummies as sister Agathe right away?  And how did you go straight to the portrait up there for the answer that we needed to continue?”

What could I tell the archivist? Could I tell him about my nighttime experiences? I asked him a counter question to change the subject.

“Haven’t you noticed the similarity between this painting and the dead woman we found down below?”

“No,” said Dr. Holzbock and examined the painting, which was now clearly visible in the bright afternoon sun.

“In any case you would need to look at it very closely. . .”

He took the ladder that had been leaning in a corner and set it up. But he was unable to take the painting down from the wall. I—I—couldn’t bring myself to help him. I called for two workers to assist him with it and left, because I could not rid myself of the superstitious belief that it would be better if the painting remained on the wall.

The apparition of my nights came once more, and in such a way that it overwhelmed me by force, even in the bright of day. I saw myself entangled in a very strange story and I felt with horror; that I could not get free. It lay around me like coils. When I was back in the bright sunshine, standing in the noise and dust of the work outside, I made the decision to not worry anymore about what had happened to me and to call in sick tomorrow and immediately begin my vacation. But first, I wanted to bring my observations to an end that night. I was convinced that some type of conclusion must come.

After a quarter of an hour the archivist came with both workers and declared that it was not in any way possible to bring the painting down from the wall without breaking the frame or cutting through the canvas.

“Don’t shrug your shoulders,” he said. “It seems as if you act and know more about these remarkable and mysterious things than my chronicle. You still need to give me your opinion of these things, which I intend to write about in an article for the publication of the historical society.”

With that he left, leaving the impression of a very honest, educated man of romantic inclinations, not at all very tormented.

The day was endless for me. Every hour gray faces slipped past me, like bored, indolent shadows. When evening came my wife noticed my excitement, and I could only calm her with my promise that the next day I would call in sick. It was eleven o’clock and the light still burned on my wife’s side of the bed. For some reason, today of all days, she was not able to fall asleep and I was beside myself with fear that my plans would be thwarted. Finally, just before midnight, she bent down over me once more and I pretended that I was asleep. She extinguished the candle with the snuffer and two minutes later was in no condition to hear me as I lightly got up and left the room. Just as I came to the front door, the old clock in the tower of the cloister struck midnight. I heard the scream, the sound of running men and then the woman flew past me—it was Agathe; her terrible, smoldering eyes looked at me, and then came the pack of pursuers. I raced after them.

It was again the same dreamlike gliding and floating, in which the houses to the left and right of me appeared like steep walls that determined the course of our run. There were only two things that I was able to see with complete clarity. The group of pursuers in front of me and the night sky above us; which was filled with many white clouds like the individual chunks of ice that cover a river during the time of the spring thaw. From time to time the sickle of the moon appeared between the columns and cracks of the cloud fragments, like a boat upon the dark, abysmal waters of heaven.

Then the chase neared the board fence that surrounded the rubble field, and the figures in front of me disappeared. But it was not the indecisive running back and forth of the pursuers as before. Instead, they appeared to be swallowed up into some type of funnel. It seemed to me as if they whirled together and rose up like a pillar of smoke that was then sucked down into the earth. I stood there right before the shaft which had been dug out during the course of the day at my command.

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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.

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That day we made a discovery in the rubble field that highly delighted the archivist. It was the excavation of a beautiful old portal, whose elaborate artwork had been done with such care in the past that he wanted to set it back up again as a memorial in a different place.  Over two pillars, which were richly decorated with flowers and fruit, curved a beautiful arch over the entrance. On the ledge above this portal stood statues of the saints in the style of the 17th century, saints that held their symbols out in front of them like hieroglyphs of their fates. As they tried to lift St. James from his pedestal, his head fell from his neck, rolled a few paces further and remained lying in the rubble. You could see a round cylindrical recess at the base of the head; as if an iron bar had once been fastened to it and when they picked up the rest of the statue you could see that the recess continued into the cavity of the statue as well.

At first I reproached the workmen for their carelessness, but Dr. Holzbock, who had lifted the head and was looking at it very intently, interrupted me:

“They could not help it, my friend. This is not a new break; it is an old one. It is not an accidental separation, but an intentional one, and it would not surprise me . . .”

Just then one of the workers came up to me and handed me a small role of dirty paper.

“This was inside the hole,” he said. “Perhaps there is something in it.”

The archivist looked at me and took the roll of paper from out of my hand. With great care he attempted to unroll it and finally succeeded in spreading it out on the drawing board in my office and fastening it down with thumb tacks. It was a piece of heavy ancient document, like that which the most important contracts had been preserved upon in the past. I tried in vain to make sense of the confusion of red and black lines. It appeared to be some type of blueprint, even though my skills as an architect failed to make any sense of it. I gave up my efforts, but Doctor Holzbock declared that he was determined to solve the puzzle of the paper and asked me if he could take the find home with him.

Even before closing time he had returned and beckoned to me from afar with his hand. Solemnly, he laid his hand on my arm and led me through a small nearby door into the church, where we could be undisturbed. A wonderful evening sky, in which unfathomable purples, reds, and the deep emerald of the pilot boats with their white sails disappearing into the night, gave the lonely church something of their colors.  The tall Baroque silver candlesticks, between which we were standing, were tinged with red. On the wall across from us St. Agnes allowed her anger to disappear and radiated in turn a glowing expression of sensuality. The statues of the saints, the pulpit and the angel below the gallery were transformed, as if released from the compulsions of the day and rejoicing in the night, in which they could be entirely free, and perhaps live a life of which we knew nothing.

In the meantime the archivist had pulled our blueprint out of his pocket and began:

“After some consideration it became clear to me that this blueprint as we see it now is meaningless. Or rather, its meaning is hidden. When we observe the confusion of lines, our senses are so overwhelmed, that it could be a blueprint, but we are not able to determine just exactly what it means. The appearance of the paper, even the letters, which you find here and there among the lines, I can with confidence claim, originates from out of the first half of the 17th century. That was also the time when this building was a cloister for nuns. Now, I have found an old chronicle that speaks quite often and very specifically about this cloister, and seldom with very kindly thoughts.

You know that people often said the strangest things about cloisters during those times. My chronicle also has much to report about this cloister, but very little of it is edifying. If our guess is right, that this paper which we found is a blueprint, then it could very well signify some mystery of the old building, which was then deliberately made to appear confused and incomprehensible to anyone else.  Another consideration strengthens me in this presumption. Have you discovered an inner passage at the portal, whose excavation you have begun today?”

“Yes, it adorned the entrance to the compound wings between the northern and the southern tracts and lies directly in front of the so called three cornered court. “

“Very good, then it will not have escaped you, that the top of this portal reaches as high as the second floor, so that some of the figures, that is the heads of the statues, could be reached without difficulty from the windows of the second floor.

Certainly, we can see that even now. The heads of some of the figures, including that of St. James, could be removed from the windows of the second floor without any trouble, if they had been separated from their bases. It would be easy to hide a dangerous paper in one of those clever recesses.”

“You think so too?”

“Haven’t I just told you that it was not a fresh break? Now I was so completely convinced of this, convinced that there was some hidden mystery behind the confused scribbles of our blueprint.  The message was hidden, but how could I get to it? I had to consider everything, before I applied any reactant chemical, because of the danger that I might spoil everything with it.

As a researcher of ancient history I have often had the opportunity to be amazed at the manifold and ingenious secret materials of the Middle Ages. I know many of the formulas for secret writing. Of these sympathetic ink plays the most important role, and the simplest type of this ink is one which becomes invisible again after drying and only becomes visible again when the paper is warmed up. This paper here could not be of that type, because it already has enough scribbles. But isn’t the reverse also possible with the unimportant and confused lines? That was something I could try without fear of damaging our treasure. Well, my dear friend, I made the attempt and it was a complete success. Would you like to see?”

Dr. Holzbock pulled out a small pocket lamp and lit it; then he laid the plan on the warming cylinder. We waited silently in the growing twilight, which was only a little disturbed by the fearful light of the little lamp. After several minutes of observation, I believed that several of the lines were becoming fainter. Then they disappeared entirely. Finally, all that remained were several lines that clearly formed a blueprint.

“It is a blueprint like I said, and now it is your job to read it.”

In a moment I found my directions, “Here is the three cornered court; here is the crossroads; this signifies the church and out from that is the Sacristy and out from the Sacristy . . . what is this? This line does not correspond to any masonry, it must be . . . Yes, and it is without a doubt a subterranean passage that leads out from the convent.”

The archivist was beside himself with joy that his suspicions had been confirmed, and I was delighted as well. It seemed to me that this discovery must in some way have something to do with my nightly experiences. I was about to tell him about it but a strange shyness held me back. I have always been guarded at the beginning of things as they developed, not wanting to speak too much, for fear of the impact of the spoken word. The word is more powerful than our common sense thinks, and it influences the future in some mysterious and intangible way.

But Dr. Holzbock must have noticed something of this because he asked me almost anxiously, “What is wrong? You seem so out of sorts.”

But I pulled him into the Sacristy without giving an answer. Here I began to search the walls according to the measurements described in the plan. I found that an immense cabinet stood against the wall where the beginning of the subterranean passage should be. It was a gigantic cabinet that could hide an entire kingdom of vestments and treasures, a well-crafted piece of old world craftsmanship.

The monstrosity, heavy as a boulder, decorated with rich carvings, rose like a Colossus from the floor to the ceiling. The archivist placed its origins in the 16th century. We were both convinced that the entrance would be found behind this cabinet, but it was also very clear to us that we could not move this monstrosity from its place if we didn’t know the secret mechanism.

“Enough for today,” said Dr. Holzbock and he managed to convince me that I should go home, although I had initially intended to remain in the Sacristy overnight, as if to guard our treasure from thieves. Our discovery and the assumptions that tied in with the blueprint occupied me so very much that my wife claimed I was obsessed.  She scolded me for so long that I promised her, as I had done before, to apply for my vacation.

Although I was resolved to not leave my bed again that night, a strange feeling compelled me, in which fear mixed with curiosity, to get up in the dark hours and go down onto the street to wait.

It struck midnight and immediately I heard the fearful scream. The sound of running men came closer and the pursuit went past me exactly as it had the previous night. This time I could see perfectly that the woman was wearing a long, nun like garment that was open a little at the breasts, as if she had hurriedly thrown it on. She turned her head to me for a moment, a pale, beautiful face, in which her dark eyes glowed with a strange light.

Once more I was compelled to follow after the chase, and again everything disappeared at the fence that surrounded the rubble field. But I believed I clearly seen the pursued woman tear open the gate and enter the building site.

“Didn’t you see anything tonight either?” I screamed at the night watchman. The man drew away from me and declared that he had not seen anything.

“But I know that she entered here. You must have seen a woman.”

When the night watchman insisted that he had seen no woman or anyone else, I pushed him aside and began to search without giving any explanation of why I was so upset and eager to get to the bottom of things. I climbed over all the debris piles, investigated all the rooms and a hundred times believed that I saw a woman in the long gray dress of a nun deep in the shadows.  Once I turned around suddenly because it seemed as if she was following with quiet steps so close behind me in the moonlight that I could hear her breathing. I opened the church with the key, which I had put in the pocket of my coat that evening with a dark intention.

In that moment I didn’t consider that there could not have been any way for her to enter the locked church. After I convinced myself that there was no living being in the church I entered the Sacristy and pulled out the blueprint. The moonlight shone bright and green on the old cabinet so that the decorations shone as if made of bronze. The beautiful carvings sprang out from the golden brown background, and the exuberant cherubs appeared to come to life in the light.

A painting above the old cabinet that I had not noticed during the day caught my attention. It was an old painting, so darkened by the smoke of incense and candle flames that only the face of the saint could be made out, as if stepping out from the shadows of the centuries. Or maybe it was not the face of a saint? Perhaps it was the portrait of a woman who had once lived within these walls? It seemed more friendly and informal than the portrait of a saint. Then in the green moonlight it seemed to me as if I had seen this face once before. Those dark, flaming eyes burned into my own.

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