Poet Lore/Volume 4/Number 8-9/Newton's Brain

NEWTON’S BRAIN.

By Jakub Arbes


I WANT to tell an amusing story and yet begin at a grave. It is cynical; but I hope that, after a few words of explanation, even tender souls will forgive me.

Severe and implacable Science has robbed many of us of the sweetest dream of life; her cruel hand has torn asunder that veil which has covered the destiny of living beings after death; and a dreadful, but more or less clear, perspective opens to every one who trusts to her proofs, instead of to old traditional, though pleasant, prejudices.

Why, then, should we lament at the grave of a man who believed—nay, what is more, who was convinced—that all that blesses or grieves us ends with death? Why mourn the death of a man who disliked sorrow more than the most bitter scorn, who, hating grief and tears from the depths of his soul, knew no sweeter sensation than that which arises from the knowledge that one’s endeavors have all been intended to drive away the most fearful demon of man’s soul,—grief?

The man of whom I speak had been a friend of mine from his early youth, and died—or, more correctly, was killed—in the battle of Königgrätz, as an officer of Prince Konstantin’s regiment. A Prussian sabre cut his skull in two.

His father was manager of Prince Kinsky’s garden. We were remote relations; and although my friend’s family was quite rich, while mine was poor, we lived in most intimate friendship for almost twenty years. We played together in childhood, and studied together in boyhood.

Our life and studies were as peculiar as our inclinations. At first we busied ourselves with everything that came into our hands; we examined, analyzed, and discussed whatever chance would bring us. Our debates were lively,—nay, impassioned. But the exchange of strange, often bizarre, opinions was pleasing and tempting; and there was not a single day, perhaps, that we did not debate something seemingly beyond solution. This thoughtless, desultory study naturally had no practical ends; but it developed our dialectics and inflamed our fancy, which often performed real wonders in the world of the bizzarre.

To the no small grief of our fathers, neither I nor my friend was very proficient at school. In our “private” studies, however,—that is, in those sciences which we loved above all,—we excelled all our fellow-students. Nature had endowed me with ugliness and my friend with beauty, and our inclinations were similarly dissimilar: I liked dry and tiresome mathematics, whereas my friend preferred the fresh and noble natural sciences. But we were so far from a true scientific course that I really do not know whether I should not regard all we studied then as mere play.

There was, however, some definite end in the studies of my friend. He studied mainly physics, chemistry, mechanics, and a few kindred branches,—but all with a view to escamotage. God knows when and where he conceived the idea of having special talents for escamotage; but from that time nothing interested him unless it had some connection with his hobby. In all his doings he aimed at acquiring skill in that playful pseudo-science, as he called it; and from his favorite sciences he picked out only what was related to it.

His father knew nothing about it, for my friend worked in secret. I was his only confidential friend, and it was in my room that the most varied experiments were performed. Every single penny that my friend could earn or get, he turned toward buying magical tools, or books on escamotage; all of which he deposited in my room. In a few years there were so many curious instruments and appliances heaped within this narrow precinct that it looked very much like the study of a mediæval alchemist.

Pursuing his hobby with zeal, my friend made such rapid progress in escamotage as showed that he was really very gifted. But the more he prospered in his pseudo-science, the more his passion grew; and thus it often happened that while I was busy figuring out how high, under certain conditions, a balloon of a certain weight, filled with one or another gas, must rise, only a few feet from me my friend was repeating for the thousandth time a trifling experiment,—how, at a moment’s notice, to throw a given card out of a pack.

Oftentimes he would experiment in my absence, and then surprise me with many a clever piece of work. His labors were never superficial, and he despised common jugglery. His secret lay in aptly combining various mechanical, chemical, and physical effects; statics and dynamics, optics, with its branches, acoustics, magnetism, electricity, synthetical and analytical chemistry, all these and in part other sciences also, as astronomy, anatomy, physiology, were mastered by my friend with an unusual earnestness, in the course of seven or eight years,—but all with a view to escamotage.

It is no wonder, then, that my friend bought every book or pamphlet, no matter how trifling, which dealt with escamotage or kindred matters, as magic, alchemy, astrology, magnetism, and somnambulism, mystics, chiromancy, and the like. His library, which, like his instruments, he kept in my room, was an odd collection. Beside books of actual value, works of famous savants like Newton, Linné, Locke, Leibnitz, Bacon, Arago, Wolf, Lavoisier, Cartesius, Brown, Mohs, Cuvier, Humboldt, etc., you might see books of unknown or forgotten pseudo-scientists and charlatans; e. g., ‘Ten Books on the Secrets of Nature,’ by Paracelsus Bombastus, published in Strasburg in 1570; or Mehnu’s ‘Mirror of Alchemy;’ Böckmann’s ‘Archives of Magnetism and Somnambulism,’ Cagliostro’s ‘Adventures;’ Commiers’s ‘Les Oracles des Sibylles,’ published about a hundred years ago; Crusius’s work on Schroepfer’s art of summoning spirits, Wincer’s ‘Demonology,’ and many other like works. But the clear mind of my friend was elevated above that enormous mass of men’s errors. He studied those strange books rather from curiosity than for use, although he was well aware that knowledge of such mental aberrations might assist him in strengthening natural delusions.

His work was not only thorough, but also independent. He not only learned known experiments, but invented new ones, and through systematical efforts, endeavored to place his pseudo-science upon a broad and secure basis. No wonder, then, that later his performances surpassed all expectations. His elegant appearance, his eloquence, a light and even sarcastic wit, and a technical skill acquired through many years’ training, served him well in the most difficult experiments. As evidence of his skill, I shall mention a few out of many hundreds of more or less familiar experiments which I have myself seen. Swallowing burning tar and stones, drawing threads and ribbons out of one’s mouth, thrusting a knife into one’s breast, are mostly feats of obsolete jugglery; but he knew how to perform these and other tricks so well that he could rival the most famous magician.

At the wedding-feast of one of my relatives he once performed an original and pretty experiment. We were seated at a long table, in the centre of a spacious hall. There were about twelve persons in all. The bride was sitting at the head of the table, the bridegroom beside her, then the bridesmaid and the groomsman. I sat opposite the bridesmaid, my friend was at the other end of the table, about nine feet from the bride. We were in gay spirits. The menu was excellent, and joke and jest soon ruled the field of talk. When the feast was near its end, a large deep dish of boiled crabs was served and placed before the bride. But she either did not fancy that dish or was too mindful of etiquette; for she asked the groom to pass it on. He obeyed, and the dish passed from hand to hand until it came, though nearly empty, back to the bride. Only small crabs were left, and seeing that the groom had not yet been served, the bride was about to pick out for him one or two of the best that were left; she bowed her head a little, looked over the dish with her pretty blue eyes, and seized the largest crab. But hardly had she put it on the groom’s plate when she shrieked in terror and pushed back from the table: from the plate there looked at her a loathsome toad.

“What’s that?” the bridegroom cried out, and stabbed the creature with his fork. The toad leaped from the plate upon the table, in front of the bride. All guests showed surprise; but my friend quietly sitting at the other end of the table said, “Why do you stab the little unfortunate?” Then he arose and touched the toad, which leaped over the bride’s head toward the door.

The bridegroom jumped from his seat, and with one foot trod upon it. To the amazement of all it moaned in a human voice, “Alas, now I am dead!” The groom stepped back, my friend stooped to the floor, and, instead of a toad, picked up a snow-white glove. Taking the bride’s handkerchief, he wrapped the glove in it, and placing the handkerchief before the bride, he murmured, like the famous Bosco, the magic Italian formula, “Spiriti miei, ubbidite!” And when one of the guests had unfolded the handkerchief, he found there a pair of choice gold ear-rings,—my friend’s gift to the bride.

To prove the death of a sparrow, pigeon, hare, mole, or some other little animal, and then with a penknife cautiously to take out its brain from the skull, replace it with a perfumed piece of cotton, and then to order the animal slowly to wake up to life as though it were reviving from a swoon, and afterward to jump up and fly or flee away, is a feat of escamotage well enough known; but my friend would perform it in so many ways that it interested even those spectators who had many times seen like experiments.

It would need a thick book to exhaust his répertoire; but from the few examples I have mentioned, it will be seen that he could honorably compete with the most skilful escamoteurs. His main efforts, however, were directed toward summoning spirits. His apparatus and the means he employed were concealed even from me. Once he told me if I wished to see any historical personage, that he would call him. I named Napoleon I.

Several nights had passed, but Napoleon did not put in an appearance; once, however, after I had forgotten the promise of my friend, I was awakened from sleep by a gentle tapping at my door. Rising I rubbed my eyes; but as the tapping was repeated I asked, “Who is that?” No one answered, the door quietly opened, and in stepped, with a grave gait, Napoleon I., just as I had oftentimes seen him pictured,—in a gray coat, white breeches, with high riding-boots, and the historical three-cornered hat. Silently he walked to the window, and back to the door. I wanted to address the vision, but did not; and as a curiosity I must confess that to this day I do not know why I did not.

I did not see more experiments of this kind. Whenever I wished anything like it, my friend always referred me to some later time, when he would have all the necessary apparatus and be better skilled. Sometimes he told me that he was engaged in constructing automatons, with the aid of which he expected to perform real “miracles,” and delude entire companies of savants and scientists. He intended to invite a considerable number of friends and lovers of this kind of amusement, and to perform experiments of the most complicated and intricate kinds. He assured me that I would really be surprised; and taking all I saw into account, I could readily judge that he would fulfil his word.

We lived and studied thus for several years. Our study—many-sided at first, afterward one-sided—was not fruitless. Shortly before 1860 our records were so low that we had to stay another year in the same class. We stayed; and at the end of the year we failed again, and next year we failed the third time. The father of my friend, who often jokingly threatened to apprentice his son to a cobbler, if he continued to fail, finally lost all patience, and, in a family conference, it was decreed that the best thing for my friend to do would be to become a soldier. My friend did not object, and a short time afterward called on me dressed in the uniform of a cadet of the foot regiment of Prince Konstantin of Russia.

“Well, what are you doing?” he inquired shaking hands with me.

“I am going to be a carpenter.”

“Forever?”

“I do not know; I am practising now, or, in other words, I am entered as an apprentice, although I have not yet had an axe in my hands.”

“And probably you will never have one,” laughed the young candidate of a bloody trade.

“Maybe,” I replied; “and probably your hands will never touch any of your magic tools any more.”

“Far from it! I have just come to rid you of this rubbish; why, you can hardly move here.”

“Very well. But where shall we put it?”

“To-morrow I shall send several boxes; you will help me to pack them. I shall have them secretly delivered in the cellars of the prince’s castle; and should I ever—when I feel lonesome in Trieste or Pesth, or some Catholic village of the Tyrol, you know—well, then I shall write to you, and you will look up the necessary instruments and send them to me.”

I promised to do so. The next day we filled no less than five large boxes with books, apparatus, and other magician’s trash. On the following day the boxes were carried away. We saw each other several more times; but two or three weeks afterward he was ordered to leave for Königgrätz, the seat of his regiment. Since then I have been lonely. My friend did not write, nor did I; and thus our formerly indissoluble friendship ended with a mutual, though only apparent, indifference.

***

Two years later—I believe it was in January or February of 1866—my friend sent me a letter. He told me various incidents of his life, recalled the “folly” of his studies, and asking me to reply soon, concluded thus:—

 
“Do you know the phrase ‘Let pleasure live’? If you do not, you would learn to know it in its full extent if you were an officer of the same regiment with me. I would never ask for jollier comrades or a more pleasant life. Only sometimes,—sometimes only, understand,—when the last days of the month have come, and the salary has gone, I feel rather melancholy. Several times I thought of how to prevent it, but never dared to follow my plan; and, therefore, I beg you now, write me, if you know of any one who would be as crazy now as I was years ago,—possibly he might purchase either all or a part at least of my tools and instruments which I have deposited in the cellars of Prince Kinsky’s villa.”
 

I did not expect such a conclusion of the letter. Knowing my friend’s passion for his favorite pursuit, I could not believe that he would have freed himself altogether from it; and thinking that the words just cited were either a momentary fancy or an escamoteur’s attempt to make me believe that he had forever abandoned his pseudo-science, I simply replied that I knew of no one who would buy that which he offered for sale.

A partial proof, at least, that I was not mistaken, was his second letter. He declared that after all his endeavors to forsake and forget his folly,—escamotage,—he could not but try if he could rid himself of his passion by selling his apparatus; but that, as soon as he sent the letter, he felt sorry for having written it, and he added that even in case a purchaser had been found, he would not have sold his instruments. In times of leisure, he wrote, he always thought of constructing his automatons; and he assured me that, if his exhibition of them should ever take place, it would be magnificent.

Shortly before the Austro-Prussian war was declared, I received one more letter from my friend,—the last one. It was again written in a gay, almost frivolous tone. I give here the following passage:—

 
“In a few days, perhaps, we shall be ordered to go to the battlefield. Pity your unhappy friend. Without any apparatus, cards, mirrors, tinctures, and other necessaries, he will have to murmur: ‘Spiriti miet, ubbidite!’ and the ‘spirits,’ always obedient, will, mayhap, for the first time refuse obedience. In the midst of a rain of bullets a small piece of lead is more powerful than magic formule, and my sword and my revolver will, perhaps, make many a one familiar with the mysterious truth that no human power can. Eh! why fall into sentimentality? Sooner or later each of us will learn, as have those innumerable millions of creatures who have preceded us, whether life ends with death. Why this useless philosophizing? And when the last. fierce struggle shall come, I shall, perhaps, mournfully beg: ‘Spiriti miei, ubbidite!’ or, it may be, I shall not think of my ‘spiriti’ at all. Yet there is one thing I beg of you: should I get killed, don’t mourn! Call our old friends together, and then think of me with cups of wine in your hands! If you grant this request, you may be sure that, even after that, I shall once more at least call on you.”
 

Reading the last lines I smiled as we smile at a paradox. From then on I heard nothing more of my friend until after the battle of Königgrätz. Just before the complete stoppage of the mails I received the following letter:—

 
Dear Sir,—A young officer, a first lieutenant of the Königgrätz regiment, has to-day been brought to our town. He is severely wounded; his skull is cut in two, and he is constantly beside himself.. He was found this morning, about an hour’s journey hence, in a gorge, whither he seems to have crawled after being wounded. His identity has not yet been established; but I hope it will be, either to-day or to-morrow. In a letter found in his pocket I found your address, and send you this sad news so that you may inform his relatives and friends.

Respectfully yours,
P. Vojta Nosal,
Parson, Nechanice.

 

Travelling through regions occupied by the Prussian army was neither easy nor pleasant; still, I decided at once to leave for Nechanice. I wrote a note to my friend’s father, and enclosing the parson’s letter, sent it by a messenger; then, without waiting for a reply, I took a train for Kolin, and thence proceeded to Nechanice in a coach. I arrived at two o’clock in the morning. Prussian guards stopped the coach before the town. I told them where I was going, and a soldier was ordered to accompany me to the parsonage. In a few minutes the coach stopped before the parson’s house; I rang the bell, a man opened the gate, heard the reason for my coming, and went to announce me to the parson just come back from tending a Saxon officer, who lay dying in the church with other wounded soldiers. The parson welcomed me politely, and rejecting as politely my excuse for disturbing him so late, he led me to the upper floor, where he had his drawing-room and several other rooms arranged to receive the wounded. “His name has not yet been ascertained,” the parson said, as he opened the door; “but I hope you will recognize him.”

We entered. The room was half dark; along the walls there lay about twenty soldiers on improvised beds on the floor; several bedsteads bearing those severely wounded stood near the windows. The parson led me to one of these, and silently raised the light. The head of the wounded man was surrounded with ice. I looked into his pale face, and at once recognized my friend. He was still beside himself: there he lay motionless, with his eyes half shut; and his heavy breath was the only sign of his life.

“It is three days now,” the parson whispered, “since he was brought hither, and the physicians give up all hope. They recommend quiet, ice, and quinine.”

I was going to speak to my friend; but seeing his hard struggle, I turned away, and we left the room. In the hall I thanked the parson for his kindness, and was about to go; but he courteously invited me to be his guest at least until the next morning. Being tired to death, I gladly accepted the invitation, and stepped with my host into a large room on the ground floor.

“Do you know anything particular about my friend’s accident, reverend sir?” I asked, as we were seated at a large table.

“In the terrible confusion that has reigned here for several days,” the parson answered, “ it was impossible to obtain any certain information; for as yet we know nothing more about the dreadful battle of the third of July than a few details we learned from those slightly wounded. The regiment of your friend took part in the battle of Jičín, where it was severed. One division retreated to Smiřice; the other, the stronger of the two, turned southward, and was then joined to the first army corps. On the third of July this division was among the reserves of the first army corps, and it appears to have been sent to the aid of those fighting near Probluz, about four o’clock in the afternoon; and in this skirmish your friend was wounded. Judging from the wound itself, he must have been struck with a sabre just as he was stooping down for something; for the upper part of the skull is almost wholly split off. His wound is a deadly one, and all physicians who have inspected the wound are not a little wondering that your friend is still alive.”

Hardly had he said this when the door opened. In came one of the men who attended the wounded and whispered something to the parson. The sad look of the priest caused me involuntarily to ask,—

“Is he dead?”

“Dead,” the parson sadly repeated.

Once more we went into the drawing-room. My friend lay on his bed uncovered. His youthful face, once so handsome, wore an expression unutterably painful.

“He must be buried this morning,” the parson remarked. I stepped close to the bed, and touched my friend’s hand. It was ice-cold. Tears filled my eyes. I turned away, and being unable to speak, went downstairs with the parson. The first dawn of day was already pouring in through the windows. Leaving me in the first room, the parson went to his bedroom. I lay down, dressed, upon a sofa, but could not fall asleep. About two hours later the yard was full of men. I arose, and walking about the room, awaited the funeral in feverish excitement.

After nine o’clock all soldiers that died of their wounds during the night were buried. I escorted my friend on his last journey, I saw how he was let down into the grave, and with a broken heart I returned to Prague.

***

Now, after many years have passed, after I have seen so many times how mercilessly Death often rages among the living, how suddenly his icy breath overtakes even vigorous persons,—now I should surely bear even my friend’s death more easily, in accordance with his wishes and views, as a welcome deliverance from the griefs and woes with which so-called Providence has so liberally overwhelmed mortals. At this time, however, I was young,—that is, in an age when the death of a beloved friend deeply affects even a person less sensitive than I was, and therefore it is no wonder that my friend’s death was a crushing blow.

At first it seemed to me impossible that he should be really dead. But when, at times, I recalled all the details, when I reminded myself of the truth that the grave never gives up its prey, when I reflected that I could never, never see my friend any more, that for me and for everybody else he was forever lost,—I felt an inexpressible bitterness. And yet, whenever I thought of him, the words of his last letter always came to my mind: “Should I get killed, don’t mourn; call our old friends together, and then think of me with cups of wine in hand.”

I held it to be my duty to fulfil even this last wish of my friend; but at first I was prevented by grief, and later by studies, which I renewed with double zest. Yet all mental toil could not obliterate his memory, or drive away the thought that I was violating our friendship in not fulfilling his request.

Nearly four months had passed since his death, and the autumn had already come, when I determined to perform his last wish. Toward the end of October I invited all our old comrades and some acquaintances to come in the evening to a small inn in the Malá Strana, renowned for its wine, where in the past we had spent many an hour in merriment. But when I went there, I found that out of the twelve invited friends there had come,—not a single one. I sat sadly down, ordered a bottle of Bohemian wine, and betook myself to thinking. The tavern was empty, and so I could think uninterruptedly; and I thought of friendship, faithfulness, life, death, and God knows of what else. My thoughts and recollections were gloomy, bitter, painful. No wonder that one of the most vivid was the memory of my friend. His image still was vivid enough in my mind, though not as vivid as when I left Nechanice four months ago. It was losing its vividness, and the thought that sometime it would vanish altogether, and that after some years I should probably be unable to recall a single feature of his face, caused my soul great bitterness.

Never!—For the first time in my life did I understand the deep and fearful meaning of that simple word that is so often spoken every day. Never to see a beloved face, never to touch a dear hand—never,—never!

The longer I meditated upon the meaning of that fatal little word, the more hopeless were the thoughts which swarmed in my head. But what gave birth to those dark thoughts was not so much the circumstances under which they originated, as my own mental fatigue. For I had latterly studied so earnestly that I hardly left my room for two weeks. He who knows from experience how a long mental strain exhausts a man, will understand my condition. For several months I had studied chiefly optics and mathematics as applied to astronomy; but my studies did not progress as I wished, and in my soul there was that chaos which precedes a clear comprehension of the more important principles of science.

No wonder that I oftener sought a glass than usual; no wonder that I left the tavern sooner than I had intended, and that, when I returned to my room, I felt more tired than when I left. I sat upon a chair near my writing-desk, took a book out of the case at random, opened it, and began reading. I had hardly glanced over half a page when I pushed the book aside, and resting my head on both my hands, went on thinking,—and by and by began to slumber.

All of a sudden I heard the hollow rattling of a carriage. I lifted my head and listened. A dead stillness was around me; only now and then I heard the moan of the autumnal wind. The rattling sound came nearer and nearer, until the carriage stopped, it seemed, in front of the house where I dwelt. I wanted to rise and look from the window; but being tired, I overcame my curiosity and remained seated. I heard how some one rang the janitor’s bell, and how the door opened, and was closed.

No one lived in the house who would come home in a carriage; but the sound of voices, especially the janitor’s voice, showed that the comer was one who had a right to enter. In a few moments drowsiness overcame me again. I cannot say how long I dozed; but I was awakened by a gentle tapping at the chamber door. Again I lifted up my head and listened. A lamp was burning on the table before me, only faintly illuminating my study with its yellowish light ; all around was as still as the grave.

But what is that? Again I heard a distinct knocking at the door.

“Come in!” I said, with a feeble voice. The door opened quietly, and in the dusk I saw the tall figure of a man, I was about ten steps from him, and could not distinguish his features nor his dress.

“Who are you and what do you wish, so late?” I addressed the figure that stood motionless at the door. Without answering, the man opened wide the door, and the yellowish glitter of the lamp fell upon his face. I cried out, in amazement; I tried to jump up, but my legs were too heavy. There he stood at the door. It was—my friend!

For a few moments the silence was unbroken. Not uttering a word, he stood motionless, while I could not turn my eyes away from him. His face was deadly pale; but the clear blue eyes were sparkling with life, and a light, kindly smile played about his lips.

“Good evening,” he said, after a while, and stepped forward a little. Hearing the clatter of a sabre, I noticed that he was dressed as a military officer.

“Why, are you not dead?” I asked, astonished.

“How can I be dead, and stand before you?” he replied, with his clear, agreeable voice,

“Am I asleep or awake?” I uttered forcedly. “Did I not see you dying and dead,—at Nechanice, with your skull cut in two?”

“Possibly you saw me, and possibly you saw some one else,” was the answer of my unexpected guest; “but now you see me standing before you, safe and alive,—there can be no doubt. Here is my hand!”

I hesitated a moment, but finally shook hands with him; and I found that his hand was not cold, but as warm as formerly.

“You complied with my last request,” my friend continued, “and I have kept my word; I have come to see you.”

“But how is all this possible?” I inquired, diffidently.

“It is all very simple,” he answered; “but please allow me to sit down, and I shall briefly tell you everything; for I have no time to lose.”

Silently I drew a chair nearer, and my friend sat down by me. “Well?” I asked.

“Doubtless you saw only an officer who looked like me when you were at Nechanice. It was First Lieutenant Jiruš, who was seriously wounded in the battle of Probluz and died at Nechanice, as I learned afterward. The mistake was possible only because he resembled me; that’s all.”

“But how was it possible that my letter to you was found on him?”

“That is very simple, too. A few hours before the battle, a greater part of our regiment was lying in reserve in a small grove. The troops were ready for battle; the officers were walking from one company to another, or stood in groups talking. You must not think that the light military heart is particularly grave before battle. Jokes are perpetrated even in the hottest fight,—the more so while the soldiers are impatiently waiting for a signal to march or to fire. I well remember that I was not in good-humor that day, and to escape ennui I took out your letter and read it a second time. By chance First Lieutenant Jiruš came unnoticed behind me, and thinking that I was reading a love-letter, he snatched it in jest from my hands, intending to read it aloud to my colleagues; but at the same moment we were ordered to march out. Jiruš put the letter into his pocket, and hastened to his company; while I drew my sabre, and stepped into line. A moment later a fierce shooting followed, and we thought of nothing but the enemy. You know the end of the fight; I was captured, and have just returned from Königsberg, where I have been vexed with ennui.”

“But why, at least, did you not write me a card?” I asked, when my friend finished.

“A mere whim,” he answered quietly. “And, besides, I followed your example, and wearied myself with mathematical and astronomical studies.”

“But what brings you here so late? When did you come?” I asked urgently, being almost fully convinced that my friend was alive and well.

“I arrived this evening; but even yesterday our friends knew that I was coming, so they failed to go to the tavern where you invited them. You are the only one whom I did not inform, in order to surprise you the more. I come now to invite you to a banquet which my father gives in the castle of Prince Kinský, in celebration of my safe return. At the same time I must tell you that I shall give there the great performance in escamotage, which, as you know, I have been preparing for years. My automatons and other apparatus are all in the best order, and I hope to interest all the guests.”

Everything I had just heard and seen showed that my friend, supposed to be dead, had really come to see me, and that his passion for escamotage was unabated.

“But why is the banquet given this very day? can it not be postponed?” I asked after a while. “What an idea!” said my friend. “My father gives the entertainment with the consent of Prince Kinský, who has invited many guests. Look, the castle is all illuminated!”

Then he stepped to the window, from which a part of Kinský’s villa could be seen, and rolled up the curtain. All the windows of the palace were, indeed, lighted. “The banquet has already begun, about an hour ago,” my friend went on; “my performance will begin later, and for this reason I came to inform you. Come, if you like! But excuse me; you will have to come by foot, alone. I must leave in haste and without you, purely for an escamoteur’s reasons, of course. Will you come, then?”

“I will,” I said, rising.

My friend quickly arose, shook hands and left. I heard his steps, heard the door open and close, and then a carriage rattling along the street. I listened, listened until the sound died away. All I had just witnessed was so strange, in spite of all explanation, that for a time I remained sitting motionless, unable to collect myself. Distrust soon arose in me. Being alone and seeing nothing changed about me, I was ready to believe it all a dream; but the Prince Kinský’s illuminated palace, which I saw from my window, confirmed the opinion that I was really awake, and that I was able, nay, obliged, to perform my friend’s request.

I shall never forget the sensation I felt after his departure. I felt as happy as a man who was unexpectedly freed from some dreadful vision that had haunted hima long time. I felt an unusual briskness and strength. Without any long deliberation I put on an overcoat, took my hat, and left the room. I went slowly downstairs, knocked at the janitor’s window, had the door opened, and walked into the street.

It wasa clear autumn night. The pensive moon, lightly veiled in thin mist, hovered above Petřín, and in its silvery beams the moist pavement glittered like the surface of a lake curled by a gentle breeze. Now and then I felt the breath of a cold north-wind. As the wind was blowing directly against my face, I hastened my pace, and in about a quarter of an hour I stood before the grated entrance of the Kinský park. The main gate and the side-doors were wide open; and an old porter, an old acquaintance of mine, dressed in a fur-coat, as though it were midwinter, was impatiently walking up and down. “Are there many guests to-night?” I asked the porter.

“Yes, sir,” he murmured in answer.

“Is it long since the celebration began?”

“Possibly; but Iam not sure. About half an hour ago Frederic, the young gentleman, rode out and has just returned.”

“What do they celebrate?”

“I do not know; but the young gentleman whom they thought dead came back, and undoubtedly it is in his honor.”

“Really!” I whispered unwillingly; and first now was I fully convinced that all I had shortly before witnessed in my study was no delusion, but reality.

“I may go upstairs, may I?” I asked formally, knowing beforehand that the old porter would let me in, even if he had an express order not to admit any uninvited guest.

“Why, you are in the first place on my list of guests,” he answered.

“Good-by, then!” I said, and walked up the broad gravel drive.

The cold of the autumnal nights had left evident traces of its implacable destructive power in the park. The leaves of trees and bushes were yellow, and had mostly fallen. Here and there a tree stretched out perfectly bare branches. The dead silence of the night was broken only now and then by a blast of the cold north-wind. I hurried on and soon saw the palace, about five hundred paces before me.

All the windows were lighted; in front of the villa I saw dark figures coming and going, and farther on stood a long row of carriages. A little later I heard low sounds of music, evidently coming from the villa. What kind of music it was I could not exactly tell ; but it seemed to be rather melancholy, sad as a funeral march.

In afew moments, however, the music became silent, and I heard nothing but the scraping of the gravel under my feet. I hastened still more. The nearer I came to the palace the fewer dark personages I saw before it, and when I finally stopped directly in front of the villa, all was as still and quiet as if the palace had been uninhabited. At some other time this would have seemed strange to me; but now, remembering that I was coming to a special celebration, given in honor of an escamoteur who, after many years of study, desired to surprise his guests with an extraordinary performance, I did not wonder even when on entering the foyer I found myself in utter darkness. I only looked back on hearing the clapping of a large door; but I judged that all this was done only to strengthen the effect.

I stopped and waited to see what would happen next. But deep silence and darkness reigned all around. After some time, after my eye, coming suddenly from moonlight into darkness, had adapted itself to the dark, I noticed a streak of light a few paces before me. Coming nearer, I found that it was due to the moon-light penetrating through the half-open door from an adjoining room.

I opened the door wide and entered. The room was vacant and without any furniture; and though I had not been in the castle for a long time, I recollected that that room used to serve as an ante-chamber to the corridor leading to the main hall, where all greater banquets were usually held. I also remembered that this was the usual way to the main hall whenever a person did not wish to enter through the chief entrance. Knowing which way to go, I stepped to the window through which the moonlight was pouring in, and near which there was a secret tapestried door leading to the corridor. Without any difficulty I found a small knob in the wall,—a secret spring,— and pressing the knob I opened the door, as I had often done in the past.

I saw before me a long vaulted corridor devoid of all ornaments. The moon shone faintly in through some windows, and there was light enough to enable one to see that the corridor was empty. The moonlight was so sharply reflected from the snowy walls and partly from the floor paved with smooth, alternately white and black, diamond-shaped stones, that I could tell every cloud that passed over the moon.

I entered the corridor; but to my astonishment a peculiar cold blew on me, as though it were open at the other end. I went on through it until I came to a point where it joined another corridor at a right angle. This second corridor was empty, too. I went through that, and coming to a third corridor, I thought I came to the entrance to the main hall. But in place of the door through which I had in past years so often entered the hall unnoticed, I found merely a bare wall. I went on, therefore, to the corner; but here I discovered a fourth corridor, forming a right angle with the third.

There was no doubt that, during the few years since I had visited the palace, many changes must have taken place. The location of the corridors must have been altered, and the entrance to the hall destroyed or removed. I went through the fourth corridor, but found no door, no exit. At the same time I discovered that the corridors through which I had gone formed a rectangular parallelogram. Thus, from the fourth corridor I passed into the first. Judging by the light, I thought I was in the corridor which I entered from the antechamber; but I could not find any more the door through which I came, and which had been mysteriously shut behind me. For several minutes I searched for a door in the walls, but in vain. I wondered how all this was possible, and finally I became convinced that I was in a series of corridors from which there could be no escape until my friend should think it best to utter his magical “Efetta!

I must confess that I was surprised by this introduction into these arts. To entice a man in the night from his home, under a pretext that he is to come to a banquet, to lead him into a palace, let him enter through an open gate, and then decoy him into a labyrinth of corridors,—this was as difficult an experiment as it was original.

“Well, let us wait till the adroit magician thinks fit to release us from the prison,” was my resolution; and I quietly walked up and down the four corridors until I found myself again at the point whence I had started. At times I would stop and listen; but I heard nothing but the wind, which finally became silent, and a mysterious stillness, interrupted only by the hollow echo of my steps, spread all over the corridors.

At first I was entirely quiet; but after about half an hour had passed, I began to be a little impatient. Several times I shouted my friend’s name; but in answer I merely heard an echo of my own voice.

Walking through the corridors at a constantly growing pace, I warmed myself a little; I felt the cold the more acutely when I slackened my pace or stopped. I had to walk faster and faster. In the true sense of the word I ran through all the corridors, stopping at that point where I supposed the door was by which I had entered. For a while I searched for the door; but the cold drove me on. My anxiety increased. It seemed to me that I had been wandering through the corridors fully three hours. Every minute was almost an hour to me. I stamped, clapped, and shouted; but the stillness was unbroken. And whenever I stopped, the mysterious cold forced me on. Again I ran; I felt that my blood boiled, that the sweat was running down my face; but a mysterious power urged me on. I saw nothing before me but a dark corridor, seemingly growing narrower, and I began to doubt whether all this were real. But immediately I remembered that I saw the castle illuminated, that I spoke to the porter, and heard the music; in a word, that all this must be a reality . . . and yet I could not comprehend why I heard only the hollow echo of my own steps and words, as though I were in an uninhabited palace. Thus, I thought, thus fares a man who, staggering from one error into another, is in vain looking for firm ground,—thus arises the chaos of divergent notions and ideas which usually precedes that awful state of mind known as—insanity.

This thought suddenly arose in my mind, and instantly made my blood rise to my head. An involuntary cry escaped me; I tottered; my heavy legs ceased moving; I fell to the floor. Darkness spread over my soul.

Translated from the Bohemian by Josef Jiři Král.

 

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.
Original:

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

 
Translation:

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.