The sun hung low in the sky, almost half below the horizon. There was a strong wind from the north-east, and the water in the lake reacted accordingly, forming row after row of small waves, marching towards the shore. The leaves’ rustling set up a hauntingly musical accompaniment to the shrill cries of birds flying over the treetops.
The man padded softly amongst the fallen leaves, his eyes taking in the reds and yellows of the natural carpet. And the wind rose in fury at the artificial disturbance, causing leaves to swirl in small eddies near the ground; and all the man did was to shudder in the chill, look up at the beauty of the angry wind, and walk on peacefully.
The wind abated, and the waters of the lake were calm. The tinkling of the small stream that fed it fresh water could now be heard, vanishingly soft over the rustling and calling of Nature’s beautiful creations.
Quietly, calm and tender, a woman’s voice floated across the cool air. Wafting slowly on the breeze, it reached the man, and he stopped and raised his head, as if sniffing a sudden aroma that was sweet, yet disturbing. He was under no illusion that this lake was a secluded spot, yet the silence of his surroundings had come to give him a peace that could no be found in the majority of the world’s indulgences. Here was a place where a person could leave off thinking—or do all of his thinking.
The song went on, strangely tonal, tranquil and smooth. And the water of the lake rose in fell in tandem with this strange music, just as the hopes of the ancient sailors must have rose and fell with the calling of the Sirens. The little tinkling of the stream seemed to have changed, but it continued unchanging, eternal, in harmony with the singing and the crashing of the water waves.
The wind rose in strength again, and the man thought it prudent to return to his little home by the lake. With no obvious hurry, he walked back to his lodging, still thinking about the singing. The female voice had no risen in pitch, becoming ethereal, and the breaks in melody came infrequently enough for him to wonder if the voice belonged to a human.
With this thought, he shut his door, and pulled up a chair by his window that overlooked the lake. This was the only window in the small abode, and it was beside this window that he spent his time as a poet and a writer.
There was a small spray of water on the window, and he wondered if the wind was really that strong. He certainly did not see any significant agitation of the water in the lake.
And a female figure, made wholly of water, formed before his window; it was at that moment that the singing voice resolved into words:
—“Écoute!—Écoute!—C’est moi, c’est Ondine qui frôle de ces gouttes d’eau les losanges sonores de ta fenêtre illuminée par les mornes rayons de la lune; et voici, en robe de moire, la dame châtelaine qui contemple à son balcon la belle nuit étoilée et le beau lac endormi.
He looked up the sky, tearing his eyes away from the watery woman, and saw that she spoke a partial truth; the moon had risen, floating high in the sky, supported by a bank of grey clouds, but the lake was certainly not silent—the waves were still as large as ever.
He looked back into her eyes, full of an unfathomable feeling; and he was certain that it was a feeling no man would—or could—ever know. It was an emotion he could not name, and as his eyes took in the soft contours of her face and the hair that seemed to be made of raindrops strung together one by one, she continued.
Chaque flot est un ondin qui nage dans le courant, chaque courant est un sentier qui serpente vers mon palais, et mon palais est bâti fluide, au fond du lac, dans le triangle du feu, de la terre et de l’air.
He was at a loss for words; his mind had given up trying to understand the strange phenomenon in front of his eyes. He was now only listening to her—the indescribable water-sprite—with his heart, and it was directly to his heart that she spoke. His eyes still saw her, but no longer processed information; she was transparent, yet by the bending of light and the unsteady movement of water he could make out her arms and the robe of watered silk.
Écoute!—Écoute!—Mon père bat l’eau coassante d’une branche d’aulne verte, et mes soeurs caressent de leurs bras d’écume les fraîches îles d’herbes, de nénuphars et de glaïeuls, ou se moquent du saule caduc et barbu qui pêche à la ligne.”
His cognitive functions ponderously creaked back into life as she finished her singing, and the strength of the north-east wind fell. There was a soft laughter from the lake, and he saw that more watery apparitions were playing by the shore. The steady tinkling of the stream continued, now in a higher register.
He looked at her again. She was looking at him expectantly, as if waiting for a reply. He looked back into her eyes, returning her pregnant sight with a steady gaze. And, after a long moment, she started singing again, and her musical voice could be heard through the square glass panes.
Sa chanson murmurée, elle me supplia de recevoir son anneau à mon doigt, pour être l’époux d’une Ondine, et de visiter avec elle son palais, pour être le roi des lacs.
Ring? —he had never thought that the water-sprite was asking for his affections, just accepted the vision as a friendly hallucination. Yet in her open palm, on the surface of the hand made of running water, lay a solid, circular object; it seemed to be made of crystal and was a separate entity from the watery figure.
He was shocked. Faced with the supernatural, there was only one way out: disbelief. He leant forward, facing the window, and gingerly placed his hands on the smooth glass surface. It came as a very nasty shock to him when he felt – water under his fingertips; the water-sprite had put her hand on the pane at the same position, and he could feel that small ring of crystal pressing into his palm: she was willing him to take it and put it on.
Recoiling from the glass pane, he clutched his right hand to himself, and in the moment, one single thought filled his mind, subjugating the reflex recalling of his loved ones; … “no”.
And she fell back from the window, hurt manifest in her eyes, sorrow and desire still uppermost. She clutched the ring to herself, and it seemed to disappear into her body. Her watery mouth opened once more, and while she walked softly over the grass back to the water, a song floated over the wind, carried by a voice of infinite purity and sadness, a voice of yearning.
Et comme je lui répondais que j’aimais une mortelle, boudeuse et dépitée, elle pleura quelques larmes, poussa un éclat de rire, et s’évanouit en giboulées qui ruisselèrent blanches le long de mes vitraux bleus.
He watched the watery figure retreat, awash in a mixture of dissonant emotions. The fugue of the supernatural was now playing in his head, fading out in a series of arpeggiated chords, sounding like the stream that fed the lake and her mysterious denizens…
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Je croyais entendre
Une vague harmonie enchanter mon sommeil,
Et près de moi s’épandre un murmure pareil
Aux chants entrecoupés d’une voix triste et tendre.
— Charles Brugnot — Les deux Génies
II. Le gibet
The gallows had been set up. It stood in the middle of the village square, a framework of wood—not an altogether unfamiliar sight to the gathering townsfolk; like buzzards above a dying creature, they knew what was going to happen.
The large bronze bell, set on the church steeple, tolled the evening hour. It was six o’clock; the sun, reddish-yellow and golden in the west, law supported between the low hills in the distance.
The setting sun shone into the eyes of the onlookers as they stood—a rabble of death-hungry townsfolk—looking at the forlorn set-up. The hangman was already standing by the steps, wearing his customary all-black costume and the mask that was purely ceremonial—everyone knew his identity; there would be no retribution from a fallen family.
Ah! ce que j’entends, serait-ce la bise nocturne qui glaipit, ou le pendu qui pousse un soupir sur la fourche patibulaire?
There was a horse’s whinny from a distance. Anticipation arose from the crowd, palpable in the cold wind blowing from the right. Yet none of them moved. They just stood waiting, motionless in the face of the wind like so many little statues, made of wax.
The horse-drawn cart drew nearer, and three figures could be made out: one driving the horse, one—the criminal, the sentenced—chained and hobbled, and the last, the local lord.
Serait-ce quelque grillon qui chante tapi dans la mousse et le lierre stérile dont par pitié se chausse le bois?
The prisoner was clearly visible now. He had the disheveled, misfed look of a person gone through the state prison. He was dirty, with many scratches and scars left by the torturer’s tools; he had a blank look in his eyes, one of peace and hopelessness. His hair was uncombed, each strand blown about by the wind in his face. He did not attempt to struggle; his shoulders were hunched and his muscles wasted. His hours on the rack had left his limbs so weak he could barely support himself.
The pitiable image on the cart certainly did not fit the townsfolk’s impression of a deadly person. Catcalls rang out, stones were thrown, causing the horse to whinny in fright when a stray pebble missed its target.
Serait-ce quelque mouche en chasse sonant du cor autour de ces oreilles sourdes à la fanfare des hallali?
The prisoner looked up when the sound of the hangman’s stepping up to the rope reached his ears. The harsh sound of the hard leather shoes on wood sent a chill down his spine. Turning to the crowd, he cursed them silently, in a language they had never heard.
The people nearest to him, uneasy, reflexively took a few steps back. One small child returned a string of curses, not understanding the prisoner’s words but intuitively knowing their meaning. He was quickly hushed by a nervous mother, and even the crowd fell silent.
Serait-ce quelque escarbot qui cueille en son vol inégal un cheveu sanglant à son crâne chauve?
The prisoner mutely stepped off the cart, helped by the warden. He was roughly pulled up the steps of the gibbet. At the top he stumbled, pulling the warden with him. Getting up quickly, the warden kicked him hard in the ribs, letting out a stream of invective as he did so. The hangman grabbed the fallen prisoner’s shoulders and pulled him to his feet. Pushing him to the trapdoor, the noose was fitted around his neck.
The local priest was called and he asked the prisoner if he would like to make a confession. Looking up, the prisoner contemptuously spat in the priest’s face. There followed a small struggle in which the prisoner was given a good beating, and the priest wiped his face on his flowing white robes.
Ou bien serait-ce quelque araignée qui brode une demi-aune de mouseline pour cravate à ce col étranglé?
The hangman tried to put the usual brown bag over the prisoner’s head. Shaking his head and speaking unknown words in low tones, the man made it clear that he preferred to die facing the world. And so the trapdoor was opened, the man fell—but his neck failed to break.
C’est la cloche qui tinte aux murs d’une ville, sous l’horizon, et la carcasse d’un pendu que rougit le soleil couchant.
The man did not struggle. He hung there quietly, aware that the audience’s cheering at the release of the trapdoor had quickly died away. By his side, the hangman stood, embarrassed at his failure to ensure a quick death.
After a seeming eternity, the man suddenly gave a soft cry. His eyes closed, and he ceased breathing.
The town bell tolled again. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…
Que vois-je remuer autour de ce gibet?
Shadows flitted continuously over the dark brown wooden ceiling, throwing sharp reliefs of the eaves on the sloping wooden roof. The candle, diligently working to brighten the room, was failing miserably in its intended purpose; the wind seeping in from cracks in the wooden plank walls kept the flame withered and blue, keeping close to the wick in its endeavour to stay alive.
To the side of the small room, close to the perforated walls, lay a perspiring man on dirty yellow sheets. Moaning and groaning in his delirium, he would emit inhuman sounds of fear and feral strength at irregular intervals.
Huddled by the threshold of the sick man’s room was the rest of his family. Knowing that the sick man was much closer to death than to life, they anxiously waited for his suffering to end.
The sick man was not old. He had a messy shock of black hair, uncombed and unwashed in the universal manner of the very poor. His face was twisted in agony, eyes roving about, seeing but not understanding. This agony was interspersed with bouts of silence and seeming rest, but these bouts were never long in duration.
It had been days since he had any proper sleep. No rest was allowed him by his condition; by extreme pain was he kept conscious and dumbly aware of his surroundings.
Another wave of intense pain wracked his body, and his limbs jerked in its wake. In his delirium, his mind made creatures out of his eyes’ wanderings, made monsters out of the smallest sounds.
There was a low whistle as the wind, rising in strength, blew through the crack in the wall just above his head. A splinter vibrated strongly position, acting as a reed. This note rose in pitch, then faded into nothing. A shower of small wood chips fell from the ceiling.
The man thought he saw something. When the wind died down, his suspicions were confirmed as the strengthening of the candle flame revealed a shady character hiding between the eaves.
He blinked hard. He knew that it was a product of his inflamed imagination, of his delirious mentality, yet after repeated attempts to clear his eyesight and his thinking, that little figure still stood poised on the beams of the small hovel.
Oh! que de fois je l’ai entendu et vu, Scarbo, lorsqu’à minuit la lune brille dans le ciel comme un écu d’argent sur une bannière d’azur semée d’abeilles d’or!
It was not the first time in the past few days that he had seen this creature. That apparition was a frequent visitor in his agonies, mocking him with his quick movements and quick words.
It leapt lightly down from the beam, landing on large misformed feet, yet soft-footed as a cat. Agile and slender, it wore a small jester’s cap, with a pointed gold tip; its shoes were made of a flowing linen and flagrantly adorned with glittering stones. It was strangely human, having the standard complement of organs, but it was hideously disfigured, with an overlarge nose, its open, cunning eyes, and a poisonous smile filled with greenish, uneven teeth.
As it walked over, the man’s earnest writhing on the floor doubled in magnitude and intensity. His fits became of such violence that de almost cried out in the pain the sickness was cruelly inflicting on him. His family members rushed over, only to be vehemently screamed at.
He felt herded in, felt a stuffiness of the air to such a degree that it nearly suffocated him; the overanxiety of his family did not help, and just increased his suffering. He knew that this illness was one never to be recovered from, and he was simply waiting for the end.
The apparition, sneaky and lightfooted, started padding around the small room, continuously chattering to itself in some weird language and in a high voice that grated on the man’s nerves. He fairly screamed as the chattering grew higher in pitch, sounding like the discreet clicks of a lizard.
The chattering stopped, to be replaced by a soft laughter. And oh! that laughter! could there have been anything less human than in that laughter that emanated from the fantastic vision, could anything be as malicious, as twisted as that laughter! The sick man cried out in terror, in sheer hatred of that product of his delirium; surely, such an ill-conceived mirage could not be so harmful!
Que de fois j’ai entendu bourdonner son rire dans l’ombre de mon alcôve, et grincer son ongle sur la soie des courtines de mon lit!
His breathing became increasingly laboured, and the silent prayers of his family members rose to such a volume that his irritated senses were recoiling from the reality around him. The creature now seemed singularly absorbed by the numerous cracks in the walls of the room; it was rushing about, still squeaking in its deplorable manner. And strangely, the man’s attention was kept riveted on that little inhuman figure—how strange it is, to be controlled by a formulation of one’s own mind!
The wind rose again, throwing its fury through the holed walls and nearly quenched the candle’s weak flame. And when the wind fell, that creature—imagination incarnate!—stalked over to the sick man, and released a stream of shrill, inaudible mutterings; the sick man looked up and screamed once again, filled with horror and fright—for the creature’s face had reformed itself, and now looked like the man’s own visage.
In a flash of realization he knew that—guessed that? for who could be sure, in matters of the supernatural?—it was his conscience, his conscience personified, transformed into such a vile apparition!
Que de fois je l’ai vu descendre du plancher, pirouetter sur un pied et rouler par la chambre comme le fuseau tombé de la quenouille d’une sorcière!
And as this understanding passed through the volatile thinking that he now possessed, the creature’s face returned to normal, and it shrunk away from him, as if cowering in fear of its creator, escaping from an irate god—and, for a moment, nothing was heard.
Le croyais-je alors évanoui? le nain grandissait entre la lune et moi, comme le clocher d’une cathédrale gothique, un grelot d’or en branle à son bonnet pointu!
The sick man seemed to calm down in this moment, and his family dared to raise a shred of hope for their dying member. As if it sensed this hope, false and doomed, that sickening creature pounced on the sick man, causing him to writhe in agony and groan in shock, killing off the strand of hope that came from the fervent prayers of his family.
The little creature now stood on the man’s heaving cheat, with the tips of his cloth shoes tickling his nose, and, with a sudden convulsive motion, started to swelling at an alarming rate, growing bigger, larger, until the bell on its pointed hat clashed against the ceiling and rung violently, yet only audible to the sick man, at that moment being crushed by the enormous non-weight of the shadowy body of his conscience.
The sick man was now gasping for air, his vision turning grey, a grey-black so complete even the blind could not comprehend it; the creature finally seemed to acknowledge the feeble struggling of the dying man beneath its feet, and shrunk back to its original size, half a child’s height, still standing on the man’s chest.
He leapt off lightly, turned around to face the dying man, and squealed loudly in more meaningless words; a stream of sound, an intangible rushing; and the momentary clearing of the man’s sight was reversed, rewound, …reversed to the very end. His eyes’ light fading, he turned to the disgusting apparition, the incarnation of all that was base, vulgar and evil, and fixed with a gaze strongly filled with venomous hatred, and the creature seemed to be disappearing, fading, transparent—
Mais bientôt son corps bleuissait, disphane comme la cire d’une bougie, son visage blémissait comme la cire d’un lumignon, —et soudain il s’éteignait.
There was a loud explosion of silence—the man groaned loudly, his body shuddered once—and he breathed his last, never to be tortured by life again.
Il regarda sous le lit, dans la cheminée, dans le bahut; —personne. Il ne put comprendre par où il s’était introduit, par où il s’était évadé.
— Hoffmann — Contes nocturnes