The Strand Magazine/Volume 3/Issue 14/The Saving of Karl Reichenberg

The Strand Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 14
edited by George Newnes
The Saving of Karl Reichenberg by Arthur Page
4160756The Strand Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 14 — The Saving of Karl ReichenbergArthur Page

The Saving of Karl Reichenberg.

By Arthur Page.

"Suddenly a hand was laid upon his shoulder."

T HE streets of Seville were almost deserted; here and there a solitary human being hurried as fast as the heat would allow to his home, for the sultry air of the evening gave warning of the approach of a storm. Only Dr. Karl Reichenberg felt neither the loneliness of the streets, nor the hush before the tempest; his wild eyes gleamed with excitement, and his steps were now hurried, now slow and uncertain.

Science is to her children as the apple of their eye, and they pursue her even when she hides herself and baffles their long researches. But science has her rewards also, and Dr. Karl had seen a great reality growing out of the deep obscurity in which he had groped so long. He who had toiled through sleepless nights, burning the midnight oil, earning from his neighbours the name of wizard, had triumphed at last, he had made a glorious discovery, and had seen the Unseen. Wherefore his heart was glad within him, his brain was mad with a whirling ecstasy of joy, his limbs trembled, and his feet could scarce bear him. Was not he, the poor German Jew, a stranger in the tents of the proud Spaniard, who despised him or else feared, was not he now exalted and his name great among the nations?

Suddenly a hand was laid upon his shoulder, and a deep sepulchral voice uttered these words, "The Holy Mother Church hath need of thee!" Turning, he saw two sinister figures clothed in sombre-hued robes which, reaching down to the ground, rose to a point above the head, entirely concealing form and face, except for the eyelet holes. A strong fit of shuddering seized the poor man, he saw in those two weird forms the familiars of the Holy Inquisition. His tongue clave to the roof of his mouth, and at a sign from one of them, unable to resist, he silently followed with tottering feet. All round the high walls of the houses rose menacingly, not a light in any window; above, the clouds hung low and lurid, while a deep muttering of distant thunder filled the still air. Onward his ghostly attendant bore him, seeming to glide without perceptible effort over the rough flagged pavement, his own heavy feet giving forth a muttered resonance on the pathway. In the distance he heard a sound of heavy tramping and loud talking; it was the watch patrolling the streets. Nearer and nearer they came, till he saw the gleam of the lantern at the further end of the street, and a sudden hope of escape rushed to his head, leaving him breathless and half stunned. He would call upon them as they passed, and offer them much money, all he possessed, to release him from these devils. Now the watch was close upon them, was passing, he could plainly hear one telling some coarse joke and the rude laughter it drew forth from his comrades; he strove to call out, but his parched lips refused to form the words, and in a moment they had turned a corner. All was silent again.

"He was pushed into the darkness."

On they sped, this strange company, through the inky pall that overspread the city, always passing on, till it seemed to the wretched prisoner that he and his voiceless companions had travelled from the beginning of time, and would do so till the crack of doom, when, on a sudden, his guards stopped before a low doorway set in a vast dead wall, which reached upwards to the clouds. On this door one of the familiars beat a stealthy knock, it swung open inwards and closed behind them; the darkness of without was changed for the gloom of within. They had now entered a long corridor, at the further end of which a lamp hung, shedding a tiny twinkling light; through the whole length of this passage the familiars led Reichenberg, down a long flight of steps; down into deeper and clammier passages, where he could feel the icy moisture dripping from the walls, till at last a door was opened, he was pushed into the darkness, and the door swung to heavily. He listened in a dull unhearing way to the grating sound of heavy bolts drawn to, and he heard the footsteps of the two familiars die away in the distance. Then his voice and strength returned to him, and he rose and threw himself against the door of his cell, screeching and foaming at the mouth. For an hour he raved on, and then, overcome by exhaustion, he sank down on the dark, cold floor of his cell. Hours, days, months passed, he knew not how long; time had no more an existence to him, for no light of day could pierce the solid masonry which surrounded him. But ever there came at intervals footsteps that approached, a grating opened, a loaf of bread and a jar of water were thrust in, and the footsteps died away in the distance. Sometimes he would sleep and dream wild, fitful dreams of unclouded sky and green fields; once he dreamed of his discovery, and awoke trembling, with great drops of sweat upon him. Then the madness of despair seized him, and again he engaged in hopeless strife with the cold and passive dungeon walls. But this fit lasted but a short time; day by day he grew weaker, and the power of speech went from him, and he lay down to die.

One day he heard more footsteps. They approached, and stopped before his door. It was opened, and the yellow light of a lantern filled the cell. Reichenberg did not move, only he raised his sunken eyes as a voice, soft and low, addressed him:—

"Son, thy presence is required elsewhere. Rise and follow me!"

The wretched man raised himself with difficulty, and two familiars assisted him tenderly up the interminable steps and along the endless corridor, while ever the lantern preceded them; and the soft voice spoke again:—

"Be of good cheer, my son, thy trials are almost ended!"

Another door was reached and opened. The Jew stood in a lofty, vaulted chamber, dimly lighted by three silver lamps hanging from the roof. At a table on the further side sat two men clothed in the black garb of the Inquisition, the table before them being covered with large manuscript volumes, and between them was a raised throne, unoccupied as yet. In a dark corner stood a brazier of burning coals, and over it crouched a wizened, bent figure, its face hidden by a hideous mask, occupied in twisting and turning in the flames some curious steel instruments. The whole place seemed to be filled with the echo of the last victim's groans.

He who had spoken in the gentle voice now took his place on the raised throne behind the table, and lifted a pair of wistful, brown eyes full of suffering and pity. Then Reichenberg perceived that he was in the presence of the Inquisitor-General, Don Philippo del Alguarez, and for very fear had almost fallen. Don Alguarez addressed him in a smooth, even voice:—

"Reverend Doctor Karl Reichenberg, thou art a Jew and a heretic. Is it not so?"

The poor wretch tried to speak, but could not, and simply moved his head, while the Inquisitor proceeded:—

"Thou hast had dealings with the evil one in divers manners and places, and wouldst have sold thyself body and soul to him. But the Holy Mother Church lets not her sons thus lose their immortal souls; wherefore hath she imposed punishment upon the carnal flesh, thereby to snatch their spiritual being from destruction. Satan hath desired thee, my son, but thy sufferings, which have endured but a little time, have freed thee from the meshes of thy wickedness, and now thou art free," and at the words a tender smile illumined his face.

Reichenberg had listened without hearing; but at the word "free" he started, stood upright, and stumbled towards the door. But Don Philippo raised his arm, and gently waved him back.

"One other word have I yet to speak to thee. Seeing how great a mercy the Holy Church hath extended to thee, she requireth but a slight service at thy hands before thou goest forth; surely thou wilt not refuse to render thanks for thy great deliverance."

Rising from his seat he slowly made his way to the door, and, with the words, "Follow me," passed from the chamber and into the corridor.

With a strange joy in his eyes, the Jew followed him, stumbling again and again in his eagerness, till they came to a high-roofed, spacious chapel, through whose stained windows the glorious sunlight streamed in. The prisoner drew a long breath; this was the living world; he had been raised from the grave.

The chapel was filled with a crowd of monks and priests, all waiting for the service to begin. Through these the Inquisitor led him, right up to the organ, where, taking him by the hand, he spoke again, still in the sweet mournful tones.

"Son, 'tis required of thee to take upon thyself a menial office, yet one that will show thy gratitude to Heaven; for thou must needs work the bellows of this organ. But," and here he led the Jew to a small cell, lit by a single lamp, "thou must not let the wind fail, or surely a terrible doom will be thine; for yon great block" (pointing to a black mass which seemed to hang from the roof) "will descend and crush out thy life. But fear not, thy task is light, and soon shalt thou be free in the light of day."

With these words, he closed the massive cage-like door upon the Jew, bolting and barring it securely. Reichenberg seized the wooden lever, and with a convulsive energy depressed and raised it. From without there came the sweet, deep tones of the voluntary; then this ceased, and the whole congregation joined in the triumphant notes of the Gloria in excelsis. Gradually, to his horror, Reichenberg found that his frame, never physically strong, had been so wasted by the horrors of confinement that he could hardly keep the little leaden register below the mark that showed the wind in the bellows was exhausted. To his fevered brain the cell was peopled with devils taunting him, pulling up that little piece of lead on which his life hung, till it seemed to fly up towards the mark, and pointing with mocking gestures to the overhanging mass; and, strangest of all, they every one had the same face, a countenance grave and melancholy, lit up by a sad, sweet smile, the face of the Grand Inquisitor.

Seized with a sudden despair, he fell down on the ground, and lay almost in a faint, gazing with a horrid stare at the great weight above. The register had reached the mark, the moment had come, when, with a spring, the Jew hurled himself on the wooden arm, and, with redoubled strength, again filled the bellows with air. Then the triumphal chant changed to the soft tones of the Nunc dimittis; the leaden register moved but slowly up the wall, and Reichenberg knew his task was almost ended. But the lever seemed to have grown heavier, he could hardly move it; he could not, his arm was weaker than a child's, and he sank back on the ground. With his eye fixed on the register he saw it mount slowly up to the mark, while the sweet chords rose and fell outside in the chapel. It had almost reached the top. He strove to rise, fell back, and the notes of the last chord ended in a despairing shriek, drowned by the fall of a heavy mass.

The door opened, and the Inquisitor entered with four familiars.

"His task is finished and he is free. Take him from under and carry forth his body, and lay it in consecrated ground, for the Holy Mother Church hath saved his soul;" and Don Philippo turned away.