About this time (said Christian), poor as a church mouse, I took refuge in the roof of an old house in Minnesänger Street, Nuremberg, and made my nest in the corner of the garret.
I was compelled to work over my straw bed to reach the window, but this window was in the gable end, and the view from it was magnificent, both town and country being spread out before me.
I could see the cats walking gravely in the gutters; the storks, their beaks filled with frogs, carrying nourishment to their ravenous brood; the pigeons, springing from their cotes, their tails spread like fans, hovering over the streets.
In the evening, when the bells called the world to the Angelus, with my elbows upon the edge of the roof, I listened to their melancholy chimes; I watched the windows as, one by one, they were lighted up; the good burghers smoking their pipes on the sidewalks; the young girls in their red skirts, with their pitchers under their arms, laughing and chatting around the fountain “Saint Sebalt.” Insensibly all this faded away, the bats commenced their rapid course, and I retired to my mattress in sweet peace and tranquillity.
The old curiosity seller, Toubac, knew the way to my little lodging as well as I did, and was not afraid to climb the ladder. Every week his ugly head, adorned with a reddish cap, raised the trapdoor, his fingers grasped the ledge, and he cried out in a nasal tone:
“Well, well, Master Christian, have you anything?”
To which I replied:
“Come in. Why in the devil don’t you come in? I am just finishing a little landscape, and you must tell me what you think of it.”
Then his great back, seeming to elongate, grew up, even to the roof, and the good man laughed silently.
I must do justice to Toubac: he never haggled with me about prices; he bought all my paintings at fifteen florins, one with the other, and sold them again for forty each. “This was an honest Jew!”
I began to grow fond of this mode of existence, and to find new charms in it day by day.
Just at this time the city of Nuremberg was agitated by a strange and mysterious event. Not far from my dormer window, a little to the left, stood the Inn Boeuf-Gras, an old auberge much patronized throughout the country. Three or four wagons, filled with sacks or casks, were always drawn up before the door, where the rustic drivers were in the habit of stopping, on their way to the market, to take their morning draught of wine.
The gable end of the inn was distinguished by its peculiar form. It was very narrow, pointed, and, on two sides, cut-in teeth, like a saw. The carvings were strangely grotesque, interwoven and ornamenting the cornices and surrounding the windows; but the most remarkable fact was that the house opposite reproduced exactly the same sculptures, the same ornaments; even the signboard, with its post and spiral of iron, was exactly copied.
One might have thought that these two ancient houses reflected each other. Behind the inn, however, was a grand old oak, whose somber leaves darkened the stones of the roof, while the other house stood out in bold relief against the sky. To complete the description, this old building was as silent and dreary as the Inn Boeuf-Gras was noisy and animated.
On one side, a crowd of merry drinkers were continually entering in and going out, singing, tripping, cracking their whips; on the other, profound silence reigned.
Perhaps, once or twice during the day, the heavy door seemed to open of itself, to allow a little old woman to go out, with her back almost in a semicircle, her dress fitting tight about her hips, an enormous basket on her arm, and her hand contracted against her breast.
It seemed to me that I saw at a glance, as I looked upon her, a whole existence of good works and pious meditations.
The physiognomy of this old woman had struck me more than once: her little green eyes, long, thin nose, the immense bouquets of flowers on her shawl, which must have been at least a hundred years old, the withered smile which puckered her cheeks into a cockade, the lace of her bonnet falling down to her eyebrows—all this was fantastic, and interested me much. Why did this old woman live in this great deserted house? I wished to explore the mystery.
One day as I paused in the street and followed her with my eyes, she turned suddenly and gave me a look, the horrible expression of which I know not how to paint; made three or four hideous grimaces, and then, letting her palsied head fall upon her breast, drew her great shawl closely around her, and advanced slowly to the heavy door, behind which I saw her disappear.
“She’s an old fool!” I said to myself, in a sort of stupor. My faith, it was the height of folly in me to be interested in her!
However, I would like to see her grimace again; old Toubac would willingly give me fifteen florins if I could paint it for him.
I must confess that these pleasantries of mine did not entirely reassure me.
The hideous glance which the old shrew had given me pursued me everywhere. More than once, while climbing the almost perpendicular ladder to my loft, feeling my clothing caught on some point, I trembled from head to foot, imagining that the old wretch was hanging to the tails of my coat in order to destroy me.
Toubac, to whom I related this adventure, was far from laughing at it; indeed, he assumed a grave and solemn air.
“Master Christian,” said he, “if the old woman wants you, take care! Her teeth are small, pointed, and of marvelous whiteness, and that is not natural at her age. She has an ‘evil eye.’ Children flee from her, and the people of Nuremberg call her ‘Fledermausse.'”
I admired the clear, sagacious intellect of the Jew, and his words gave me cause for reflection.
Several weeks passed away, during which I often encountered Fledermausse without any alarming consequences. My fears were dissipated, and I thought of her no more.
But an evening came, during which, while sleeping very soundly, I was awakened by a strange harmony. It was a kind of vibration, so sweet, so melodious, that the whispering of the breeze among the leaves can give but a faint idea of its charm.
For a long time I listened intently, with my eyes wide open, and holding my breath, so as not to lose a note. At last I looked toward the window, and saw two wings fluttering against the glass. I thought, at first, that it was a bat, caught in my room; but, the moon rising at that instant, I saw the wings of a magnificent butterfly of the night delineated upon her shining disk. Their vibrations were often so rapid that they could not be distinguished; then they reposed, extended upon the glass, and their frail fibers were again brought to view.
This misty apparition, coming in the midst of the universal silence, opened my heart to all sweet emotions. It seemed to me that an airy sylph, touched with a sense of my solitude, had come to visit me, and this idea melted me almost to tears.
“Be tranquil, sweet captive, be tranquil,” said I; “your confidence shall not be abused. I will not keep you against your will. Return to heaven and to liberty.” I then opened my little window. The night was calm, and millions of stars were glittering in the sky. For a moment I contemplated this sublime spectacle, and words of prayer and praise came naturally to my lips; but, judge of my amazement, when, lowering my eyes, I saw a man hanging from the crossbeam of the sign of the Boeuf-Gras, the hair disheveled, the arms stiff, the legs elongated to a point, and casting their gigantic shadows down to the street!
The immobility of this figure under the moon’s rays was terrible. I felt my tongue freezing, my teeth clinched. I was about to cry out in terror when, by some incomprehensible mysterious attraction, my glance fell below, and I distinguished, confusedly, the old woman crouched at her window in the midst of dark shadows, and contemplating the dead man with an air of diabolic satisfaction.
Then I had a vertigo of terror. All my strength abandoned me, and, retreating to the wall of my loft, I sank down and became insensible.
I do not know how long this sleep of death continued. When restored to consciousness, I saw that it was broad day. The mists of the night had penetrated to my garret, and deposited their fresh dew upon my hair, and the confused murmurs of the street ascended to my little lodging. I looked without. The burgomaster and his secretary were stationed at the door of the inn, and remained there a long time; crowds of people came and went, and paused to look in; then recommenced their course. The good women of the neighborhood, who were sweeping before their doors, looked on from afar, and talked gravely with each other.
At last a litter, and upon this litter a body, covered with a linen cloth, issued from the inn, carried by two men. They descended to the street, and the children, on their way to school, ran behind them.
All the people drew back as they advanced.
The window opposite was still open; the end of a rope floated from the crossbeam.
I had not dreamed. I had, indeed, seen the butterfly of the night; I had seen the man hanging, and I had seen Fledermausse.
That day Toubac made me a visit, and, as his great nose appeared on a level with the floor, he exclaimed:
“Master Christian, have you nothing to sell?”
I did not hear him. I was seated upon my one chair, my hands clasped upon my knees, and my eyes fixed before me.
Toubac, surprised at my inattention, repeated in a louder voice:
“Master Christian, Master Christian!” Then, striding over the sill, he advanced and struck me on the shoulder.
“Well, well, what is the matter now?”
“Ah, is that you, Toubac?”
“Eh, parbleu! I rather think so; are you ill?”
“No, I am only thinking.”
“What in the devil are you thinking about?”
“Of the man who was hanged.”
“Oh, oh!” cried the curiosity vender. “You have seen him, then? The poor boy! What a singular history! The third in the same place.”
“Ah, yes! I ought to have warned you; but it is not too late. There will certainly be a fourth, who will follow the example of the others. Il n’y à que le premier pas qui coûte.”
Saying this, Toubac took a seat on the corner of my trunk, struck his match-box, lighted his pipe, and blew three or four powerful whiffs of smoke with a meditative air.
“My faith,” said he, “I am not fearful; but, if I had full permission to pass the night in that chamber, I should much prefer to sleep elsewhere.
“Listen, Master Christian. Nine or ten months ago a good man of Tübingen, wholesale dealer in furs, dismounted at the Inn Boeuf-Gras. He called for supper; he ate well; he drank well; and was finally conducted to that room in the third story—it is called the Green Room. Well, the next morning he was found hanging to the crossbeam of the signboard.
“Well, that might do for once; nothing could be said.
“Every proper investigation was made, and the stranger was buried at the bottom of the garden. But, look you, about six months afterwards a brave soldier from Neustadt arrived; he had received his final discharge, and was rejoicing in the thought of returning to his native village. During the whole evening, while emptying his wine cups, he spoke fondly of his little cousin who was waiting to marry him. At last this big monsieur was conducted to his room—the Green Room—and, the same night, the watchman, passing down the street Minnesänger, perceived something hanging to the crossbeam; he raised his lantern, and lo! it was the soldier, with his final discharge in a bow on his left hip, and his hands gathered up to the seam of his pantaloons, as if on parade.
“‘Truth to say, this is extraordinary!’ cried the burgomaster; ‘the devil’s to pay.’ Well, the chamber was much visited; the walls were replastered, and the dead man was sent to Neustadt.
“The registrar wrote this marginal note:
“‘Died of apoplexy.’
“All Nuremberg was enraged against the innkeeper. There were many, indeed, who wished to force him to take down his iron crossbeam, under the pretext that it inspired people with dangerous ideas; but you may well believe that old Michael Schmidt would not lend his ear to this proposition.
“‘This crossbeam,’ said he, ‘was placed here by my grandfather; it has borne the sign of Boeuf-Gras for one hundred and fifty years, from father to son; it harms no one, not even the hay wagons which pass beneath, for it is thirty feet above them. Those who don’t like it can turn their heads aside, and not see it.’
“Well, gradually the town calmed down, and, during several months, no new event agitated it. Unhappily, a student of Heidelberg, returning to the university, stopped, day before yesterday, at the Inn Boeuf-Gras, and asked for lodging. He was the son of a minister of the gospel.
“How could anyone suppose that the son of a pastor could conceive the idea of hanging himself on the crossbeam of a signboard, because a big monsieur and an old soldier had done so? We must admit, Master Christian, that the thing was not probable; these reasons would not have seemed sufficient to myself or to you.”
“Enough, enough!” I exclaimed; “this is too horrible! I see a frightful mystery involved in all this. It is not the crossbeam; it is not the room—”
“What! Do you suspect the innkeeper, the most honest man in the world, and belonging to one of the oldest families in Nuremberg?”
“No, no; may God preserve me from indulging in unjust suspicions! but there is an abyss before me, into which I scarcely dare glance.”
“You are right,” said Toubac, astonished at the violence of my excitement. “We will speak of other things. Apropos, Master Christian, where is our landscape of ‘Saint Odille’?”
This question brought me back to the world of realities. I showed the old man the painting I had just completed. The affair was soon concluded, and Toubac, well satisfied, descended the ladder, entreating me to think no more of the student of Heidelberg.
I would gladly have followed my good friend’s counsel; but, when the devil once mixes himself up in our concerns, it is not easy to disembarrass ourselves of him.
In my solitary hours all these events were reproduced with frightful distinctness in my mind.
“This old wretch,” I said to myself, “is the cause of it all; she alone has conceived these crimes, and has consummated them. But by what means? Has she had recourse to cunning alone, or has she obtained the intervention of invisible powers?” I walked to and fro in my retreat. An inward voice cried out: “It is not in vain that Providence permitted you to see Fledermausse contemplating the agonies of her victim. It is not in vain that the soul of the poor young man came in the form of a butterfly of the night to awake you. No, no; all this was not accidental, Christian. The heavens impose upon you a terrible mission. If you do not accomplish it, tremble lest you fall yourself into the hands of the old murderess! Perhaps, at this moment, she is preparing her snares in the darkness.”
During several days these hideous images followed me without intermission. I lost my sleep; it was impossible for me to do anything; my brush fell from my hand; and, horrible to confess, I found myself sometimes gazing at the crossbeam with a sort of complacency. At last I could endure it no longer, and one evening I descended the ladder and hid myself behind the door of Fledermausse, hoping to surprise her fatal secret.
From that time no day passed in which I was not en route, following the old wretch, watching, spying, never losing sight of her; but she was so cunning, had a scent so subtile that, without even turning her head, she knew I was behind her.
However, she feigned not to perceive this; she went to the market, to the butcher’s, like any good, simple woman, only hastening her steps and murmuring confused words.
At the close of the month I saw that it was impossible for me to attain my object in this way, and this conviction made me inexpressibly sad.
“What can I do?” I said to myself. “The old woman divines my plans; she is on her guard; every hope abandons me. Ah! old hag, you think you already see me at the end of your rope.” I was continually asking myself this question: “What can I do? what can I do?” At last a luminous idea struck me. My chamber overlooked the house of Fledermausse; but there was no window on this side. I adroitly raised a slate, and no pen could paint my joy when the whole ancient building was thus exposed to me. “At last, I have you!” I exclaimed; “you cannot escape me now; from here I can see all that passes—your goings, your comings, your arts and snares. You will not suspect this invisible eye—this watchful eye, which will surprise crime at the moment it blooms. Oh, Justice, Justice! She marches slowly; but she arrives.”
Nothing could be more sinister than the den now spread out before me—a great courtyard, the large slabs of which were covered with moss; in one corner, a well, whose stagnant waters you shuddered to look upon; a stairway covered with old shells; at the farther end a gallery, with wooden balustrade, and hanging upon it some old linen and the tick of an old straw mattress; on the first floor, to the left, the stone covering of a common sewer indicated the kitchen; to the right the lofty windows of the building looked out upon the street; then a few pots of dried, withered flowers—all was cracked, somber, moist. Only one or two hours during the day could the sun penetrate this loathsome spot; after that, the shadows took possession; then the sunshine fell upon the crazy walls, the worm-eaten balcony, the dull and tarnished glass, and upon the whirlwind of atoms floating in its golden rays, disturbed by no breath of air.
I had scarcely finished these observations and reflections, when the old woman entered, having just returned from market. I heard the grating of her heavy door. Then she appeared with her basket. She seemed fatigued—almost out of breath. The lace of her bonnet fell to her nose. With one hand she grasped the banister and ascended the stairs.
The heat was intolerable, suffocating; it was precisely one of those days in which all insects—crickets, spiders, mosquitoes, etc.—make old ruins resound with their strange sounds.
Fledermausse crossed the gallery slowly, like an old ferret who feels at home. She remained more than a quarter of an hour in the kitchen, then returned, spread out her linen, took the broom, and brushed away some blades of straw on the floor. At last she raised her head, and turned her little green eyes in every direction, searching, investigating carefully.
Could she, by some strange intuition, suspect anything? I do not know; but I gently lowered the slate, and gave up my watch for the day.
In the morning Fledermausse appeared reassured. One angle of light fell upon the gallery. In passing, she caught a fly on the wing, and presented it delicately to a spider established in a corner of the roof. This spider was so bloated that, notwithstanding the distance, I saw it descend from round to round, then glide along a fine web, like a drop of venom, seize its prey from the hands of the old shrew, and remount rapidly. Fledermausse looked at it very attentively, with her eyes half closed; then sneezed, and said to herself, in a jeering tone, “God bless you, beautiful one; God bless you!”
I watched during six weeks, and could discover nothing concerning the power of Fledermausse. Sometimes, seated upon a stool, she peeled her potatoes, then hung out her linen upon the balustrade.
Sometimes I saw her spinning; but she never sang, as good, kind old women are accustomed to do, their trembling voices mingling well with the humming of the wheel.
Profound silence always reigned around her; she had no cat—that cherished society of old women—not even a sparrow came to rest under her roof. It seemed as if all animated nature shrank from her glance. The bloated spider alone took delight in her society.
I cannot now conceive how my patience could endure those long hours of observation: nothing escaped me; nothing was matter of indifference. At the slightest sound I raised my slate; my curiosity was without limit, insatiable.
Toubac complained greatly.
“Master Christian,” said he, “how in the devil do you pass your time? Formerly you painted something for me every week; now you do not finish a piece once a month. Oh, you painters! ‘Lazy as a painter’ is a good, wise proverb. As soon as you have a few kreutzers in possession, you put your hands in your pockets and go to sleep!”
I confess that I began to lose courage—I had watched, spied, and discovered nothing. I said to myself that the old woman could not be so dangerous as I had supposed; that I had perhaps done her injustice by my suspicions; in short, I began to make excuses for her. One lovely afternoon, with my eye fixed at my post of observation, I abandoned myself to these benevolent reflections, when suddenly the scene changed: Fledermausse passed through the gallery with the rapidity of lightning. She was no longer the same person; she was erect, her jaws were clinched, her glance fixed, her neck extended; she walked with grand strides, her gray locks floating behind her.
“Oh, at last,” I said to myself, “something is coming, attention!” But, alas! the shadows of evening descended upon the old building, the noises of the city expired, and silence prevailed.
Fatigued and disappointed, I lay down upon my bed, when, casting my eyes toward my dormer window, I saw the room opposite illuminated. So! a traveler occupied the Green Room—fatal to strangers.
Now, all my fears were reawakened; the agitation of Fledermausse was explained—she scented a new victim.
No sleep for me that night; the rustling of the straw, the nibbling of the mice under the floor, gave me nervous chills.
I rose and leaned out of my window; I listened. The light in the room opposite was extinguished. In one of those moments of poignant anxiety, I cannot say if it was illusion or reality, I thought I saw the old wretch also watching and listening.
The night passed, and the gray dawn came to my windows; by degrees the noise and movements in the street ascended to my loft. Harassed by fatigue and emotion I fell asleep, but my slumber was short, and by eight o’clock I had resumed my post of observation.
It seemed as if the night had been as disturbed and tempestuous to Fledermausse as to myself. When she opened the door of the gallery, I saw that a livid pallor covered her cheeks and thin throat; she had on only her chemise and a woolen skirt; a few locks of reddish gray hair fell on her shoulders. She looked toward my hiding place with a dreamy, abstracted air, but she saw nothing; she was thinking of other things.
Suddenly she descended, leaving her old shoes at the bottom of the steps. “Without doubt,” thought I, “she is going to see if the door below is well fastened.”
I saw her remount hastily, springing up three or four steps at a time—it was terrible.
She rushed into the neighboring chamber, and I heard something like the falling of the top of a great chest; then Fledermausse appeared in the gallery, dragging a manikin after her, and this manikin was clothed like the Heidelberg student.
With surprising dexterity the old woman suspended this hideous object to a beam of the shed, then descended rapidly to the courtyard to contemplate it. A burst of sardonic laughter escaped from her lips; she remounted, then descended again like a maniac, and each time uttered new cries and new bursts of laughter.
A noise was heard near the door, and the old woman bounded forward, unhooked the manikin and carried it off; then, leaning over the balustrade with her throat elongated, her eyes flashing, she listened earnestly. The noise was lost in the distance, the muscles of her face relaxed, and she drew long breaths. It was only a carriage which had passed.
The old wretch had been frightened.
She now returned to the room, and I heard the chest close. This strange scene confounded all my ideas. What did this manikin signify? I became more than ever attentive.
Fledermausse now left the house with her basket on her arm. I followed her with my eyes till she turned the corner of the street. She had reassumed the air of a trembling old woman, took short steps, and from time to time turned her head partly around, to peer behind from the corner of her eye.
Fledermausse was absent fully five hours. For myself, I went, I came, I meditated. The time seemed insupportable. The sun heated the slate of the roof, and scorched my brain.
Now I saw, at the window, the good man who occupied the fatal Green Chamber; he was a brave peasant of Nassau, with a large three-cornered hat, a scarlet vest, and a laughing face; he smoked his pipe of Ulm tranquillity, and seemed to fear no evil.
I felt a strong desire to cry out to him: “Good man, be on your guard! Do not allow yourself to be entrapped by the old wretch; distrust yourself!” but he would not have comprehended me. Toward two o’clock Fledermausse returned. The noise of her door resounded through the vestibule. Then alone, all alone, she entered the yard, and seated herself on the interior step of the stairway; she put down her basket before her, and drew out first some packets of herbs, then vegetables, then a red vest, then a three-cornered hat, a coat of brown velvet, pants of plush, and coarse woolen hose—the complete costume of the peasant from Nassau.
For a moment I felt stunned; then flames passed before my eyes.
I recollected those precipices which entice with an irresistible power; those wells or pits, which the police have been compelled to close, because men threw themselves into them; those trees which had been cut down because they inspired men with the idea of hanging themselves; that contagion of suicides, of robberies, of murders, at certain epochs, by desperate means; that strange and subtile enticement of example, which makes you yawn because another yawns, suffer because you see another suffer, kill yourself because you see others kill themselves—and my hair stood up with horror.
How could this Fledermausse, this base, sordid creature, have derived so profound a law of human nature? how had she found the means to use this law to the profit or indulgence of her sanguinary instincts? This I could not comprehend; it surpassed my wildest imaginations.
But reflecting longer upon this inexplicable mystery, I resolved to turn the fatal law against her, and to draw the old murderess into her own net.
So many innocent victims called out for vengeance!
I felt myself to be on the right path.
I went to all the old-clothes sellers in Nuremberg, and returned in the afternoon to the Inn Boeuf-Gras, with an enormous packet under my arm.
Nichel Schmidt had known me for a long time; his wife was fat and good-looking; I had painted her portrait.
“Ah, Master Christian,” said he, squeezing my hand, “what happy circumstance brings you here? What procures me the pleasure of seeing you?”
“My dear Monsieur Schmidt, I feel a vehement, insatiable desire to sleep in the Green Room.”
We were standing on the threshold of the inn, and I pointed to the room. The good man looked at me distrustfully.
“Fear nothing,” I said; “I have no desire to hang myself.”.
“À la bonne heure! à la bonne heure! For frankly that would give me pain; an artist of such merit! When do you wish the room, Master Christian?”
“Impossible! it is occupied!”
“Monsieur can enter immediately,” said a voice just behind me, “I will not be in the way.”
We turned around in great surprise; the peasant of Nassau stood before us, with his three-cornered hat, and his packet at the end of his walking stick. He had just learned the history of his three predecessors in the Green Room, and was trembling with rage.
“Rooms like yours!” cried he, stuttering; “but it is murderous to put people there—it is assassination! You deserve to be sent to the galleys immediately!”
“Go—go—calm yourself,” said the innkeeper; “that did not prevent you from sleeping well.”
“Happily, I said my prayers at night,” said the peasant; “without that, where would I be?” and he withdrew, with his hands raised to heaven.
“Well,” said Nichel Schmidt, stupefied, “the room is vacant, but I entreat you, do not serve me a bad trick.”
“It would be a worse trick for myself than for you, monsieur.”
I gave my packet to the servants, and installed myself for the time with the drinkers. For a long time I had not felt so calm and happy. After so many doubts and disquietudes, I touched the goal. The horizon seemed to clear up, and it appeared that some invisible power gave me the hand. I lighted my pipe, placed my elbow on the table, my wine before me, and listened to the chorus in “Freischütz,” played by a troupe of gypsies from the Black Forest. The trumpets, the hue and cry of the chase, the hautboys, plunged me into a vague reverie, and, at times rousing up to look at the hour, I asked myself gravely, if all which had happened to me was not a dream. But the watchman came to ask us to leave the salle, and soon other and more solemn thoughts were surging in my soul, and in deep meditation I followed little Charlotte, who preceded me with a candle to my room.
We mounted the stairs to the third story. Charlotte gave me the candle and pointed to the door.
“There,” said she, and descended rapidly.
I opened the door. The Green Room was like any other inn room. The ceiling was very low, the bed very high. With one glance I explored the interior, and then glided to the window.
Nothing was to be seen in the house of Fledermausse; only, in some distant room, an obscure light was burning. Some one was on the watch. “That is well,” said I, closing the curtain. “I have all necessary time.”
I opened my packet, I put on a woman’s bonnet with hanging lace; then, placing myself before a mirror, I took a brush and painted wrinkles in my face. This took me nearly an hour. Then I put on the dress and a large shawl, and I was actually afraid of myself. Fledermausse seemed to me to look at me from the mirror.
At this moment the watchman cried out, “Eleven o’clock!” I seized the manikin which I had brought in my packet, and muffled it in a costume precisely similar to that worn by the old wretch. I then opened the curtain.
Certainly, after all that I had seen of the Fledermausse, of her infernal cunning, her prudence, her adroitness, she could not in any way surprise me; and yet I was afraid. The light which I had remarked in the chamber was still immovable, and now cast its yellow rays on the manikin of the peasant of Nassau, which was crouched on the corner of the bed, with the head hanging on the breast, the three-cornered hat pulled down over the face, the arms suspended, and the whole aspect that of absolute despair.
The shadows, managed with diabolical art, allowed nothing to be seen but the general effect of the face. The red vest, and six round buttons alone, seemed to shine out in the darkness. But the silence of the night, the complete immobility of the figure, the exhausted, mournful air, were well calculated to take possession of a spectator with a strange power. For myself, although forewarned, I was chilled even to my bones.
How would it, then, have fared with the poor, simple peasant, if he had been surprised unawares? He would have been utterly cast down. Despairing, he would have lost all power of self-control, and the spirit of imitation would have done the rest.
Scarcely had I moved the curtain, when I saw Fledermausse on the watch behind her window. She could not see me. I opened my window softly; the window opposite was opened! Then her manikin appeared to rise slowly and advance before me. I, also, advanced my manikin, and seizing my torch with one hand, with the other I quickly opened the shutters. And now the old woman and myself were face to face. Struck with sudden terror, she had let her manikin fall!
We gazed at each other with almost equal horror. She extended her finger—I advanced mine. She moved her lips—I agitated mine. She breathed a profound sigh, and leaned upon her elbow. I imitated her.
To describe all the terrors of this scene would be impossible. It bordered upon confusion, madness, delirium. It was a death struggle between two wills; between two intelligences; between two souls—each one wishing to destroy the other; and, in this struggle, I had the advantage—her victims struggled with me.
After having imitated for some seconds every movement of Fledermausse, I pulled a rope from under my skirt, and attached it to the crossbeam.
The old woman gazed at me with gaping mouth. I passed the rope around my neck; her pupils expanded, lightened; her face was convulsed.
“No, no!” said she, in a whistling voice.
I pursued her with the impassability of an executioner.
Then rage seemed to take possession of her.
“Old fool!” she exclaimed, straightening herself up, and her hands contracted on the crossbeam. “Old fool!” I gave her no time to go on blowing out my lamp. I stooped, like a man going to make a vigorous spring, and, seizing my manikin, I passed the rope around its neck, and precipitated it below.
A terrible cry resounded through the street, and then silence, which I seemed to feel. Perspiration bathed my forehead. I listened a long time. At the end of a quarter of an hour I heard, far away, very far away, the voice of the watchman, crying, “Inhabitants of Nuremberg, midnight, midnight sounds!”
“Now justice is satisfied!” I cried, “and three victims are avenged. Pardon me, O Lord!”
About five minutes after the cry of the watchman, I saw Fledermausse attracted, allured by my manikin (her exact image), spring from the window, with a rope around her neck, and rest suspended from the crossbeam.
I saw the shadow of death undulating through her body, while the moon, calm, silent, majestic, inundated the summit of the roof, and her cold, pale rays reposed upon the old, disheveled, hideous head.
Just as I had seen the poor young student of Heidelberg, just so did I now see Fledermausse.
In the morning, all Nuremberg learned that the old wretch had hanged herself, and this was the last event of that kind in the Street Minnesänger.