The eve of the fête-day was also the eve of the wedding — a night of excitement. The bride and bridegroom were sitting together in Timéa’s room — they had so much to talk about.
What do they say? Flowers only can understand flower-speech, the stars the language of the spheres, one pillar of Memnon answers another, the dead comprehend the Walkyrie, sleep-walkers the speech of the moon — lovers only the language of love. And he who has ever known this sacred emotion will not profane it, but guard it like a secret of the confessional. Neither the wise king in his marvelous song, nor Ovid in his love elegies, nor Hafiz in his ardent lays, nor Heine in his poems, nor Petöfi in his “Pearls of Love,” can describe it — it remains one of the secrets of eternity.
At the back of the house was a noisy company — all the household. This had been a busy day with preparations for the morrow’s feast — a culinary campaign; the press of work had lasted till late at night: then, when all had been roasted and iced according to orders, Frau Sophie found time to show herself liberal. She called together her staff, and bestowed upon them all the good things which had suffered during the heat of the fray — for this was unavoidable: what ought to have risen had sunk into a pancake; what ought to have jellied had melted into soup; here a cake had stuck to the mold and would not turn out whole; there a scrap, a cutting, a ham-bone, a piece of hare, a drumstick of pheasant remained over. All which could not be sent up to table was left as a rare tidbit for the servants, and they could boast of having tasted everything before the gentry were served.
But where was Athalie?
The whispering lovers thought she was with her mother, amusing herself in the kitchen. There, they thought she was of course with the bridal pair, and enjoying the bliss of being a silent witness of their happiness — or perhaps no one thought of her at all. And yet it might have been well if some one had interrupted themselves to ask, “Where is Athalie?”
She sat alone in the room where she had seen Timéa for the first time. The old furniture had long been replaced by new; only one embroidered stool remained as a remembrance. Athalie was sitting on it when Timar entered, in company with the pale maiden. There sat Katschuka, at work on Athalie’s portrait, over which, while he gazed at Timéa, his pencil drew a long line. Athalie sat alone there now. The portrait had long ago gone to the lumber-room; but Athalie seems to see it still, and the young lieutenant who begged her with his flattering tongue to smile a little and not to look so haughty.
The room was dark; only the moon shone in, but it would soon go down behind the gable of the tall church of St. Andrew.
Athalie reviewed the horrid dream called life. There were wealth, pride, and happiness in it: flatterers had called her the prettiest girl in Komorn, the queen, and pretended to adore her; then came a child by chance into the house — a ridiculous creature, a lifeless shadow, a cold doll, made to be an object of ridicule, to pass the time away by pushing it about. And only two years later, this vagrant, this white phantom, this reptile, was mistress of the house, and conquered hearts, turning a shipping-clerk, by the magic of her marble face, into his master’s powerful enemy, into a millionaire, and causing the betrothed bridegroom to be false to his troth.
What a wedding-day was that! The bride, recovering from her swoon, found herself lying alone on the ground. And when splendor and homage were at an end, she longed still to be loved — loved in secret and in concealment. This too was denied her.
What a memory was that! — the path she had trodden to the house of her former lover and back again, twice in the darkness! her vain expectation next day! how she had counted the strokes of the clock, amidst the noise of the auction! And he never came! Then long years of painful dissimulation, of disguised humiliation! There was only one person who understood her — who knew that the balm of her heart was to see her rival share her passion, and fade away under it.
And the one man who knew to his cost what Athalie really was — the only hinderance to Timéa’s happiness, the finder of the philosopher’s stone which exercises everywhere a malevolent spell — that one man finds his death by a single false step on the ice!
And then happiness comes back to the house, and no one is miserable but herself. In many a sleepless night the bitter cup had filled drop by drop up to the brim; only one was wanting to make it overflow; and that last drop was the insulting word, “You stupid creature!” To be scolded like a maid, humbled in his presence! Athalie’s limbs shook with fever. What was now going on in the house? They were preparing for the morrow’s wedding. In the boudoir whispered the betrothed couple; from the kitchen, even through all the doors, came the noise of the merry-making servants.
But Athalie never heard the cheerful din: she heard only the whisper. . . . She had something to do during the night. . . . There was no light in the room; but the moon shone in, and gave light enough to open a box and read the names of the poisons inside it — the unfailing drugs of an Eastern poisoner. Athalie chose among them, and smiled to herself. What a good jest it would be if tomorrow, at the moment of drinking some toast, the words should die on the lips of the feasting guests! if each saw the face of his neighbor turn yellow and green; if they all sprung up crying for help, and began a demoniac dance, fit to make the devil laugh; if the bride’s lovely face petrified into real marble, and the proud bridegroom made grimaces like a skull!
Ping! . . . A string gone in the piano! Athalie started so that she dropped what she held, and her hands twitched convulsively. It was only a string, coward! Are you so weak? She put back the poisons in her box, leaving out only one, and that not a deadly poison, only a sleeping-draught. The first idea had not satisfied her; that triumph would not suffice: it would not be sufficient revenge for “You stupid creature!” The tiger cares not for a corpse, he must have warm blood. Some one will have to take poison, but that is only herself — a poison not to be bought at the chemist’s: it lies in the eye of St. George’s dragon. She slipped noiselessly out to go to the hiding-place whence a view of Timéa’s room could be obtained. The sweet murmurs and the caressing looks of the lovers will be the poison she must absorb in order to be fully prepared.
The major was about to take leave, and held Timéa’s hand in his. Her cheeks were so rosy! Was any more deadly poison needed? They did not speak of love, and yet no third person had a right to listen. The bridegroom asked questions allowed to no one else. “Do you sleep alone here?” he asked, with tender curiosity, lifting the silken hangings of the bed.
“Yes, since I became a widow.”
“(And before too,” whispered Athalie, behind the dragon.)
The bridegroom, availing himself of his privileges, pursued his researches in the bride’s room.
“Where does this door lead to?”
“Into an anteroom where my lady visitors take off their cloaks; you came that way when you visited me the first time.”
“And the other little door?”
“Oh, never mind that — it only leads to my dressing-room.”
“Has it no exit?”
“None; the water comes by a pipe from the kitchen, and flows away by a tap to the basement.”
“And this third door?”
“You know that is the corridor by which you reach the principal entrance.”
“And where are the servants at night?”
“The females sleep near the kitchen, and the men in the basement. Over my bed hang two bell-ropes, of which one goes to the women’s room and the other to the men’s.”
“There is no one in the adjoining room?”
“There Sister Athalie and Mamma Sophie sleep.”
“Frau Sophie too?”
“Yes, to be sure. You want to know everything. To-morrow it will all be differently arranged.”
“And do you lock the door when you go to bed?”
“Never. Why should I? All my servants love me, and are trustworthy; the front door is barred, and I am safe here.”
“Is there nowhere a secret entrance to this room?”
“Ha! ha! You seem to take my house for a mysterious Venetian palace!”
(“Is it your house? Did you build it?”)
“Do, to please me, lock all your doors before you go to bed.”
(“He seems to guess what we shall all be dreaming of to-night.”)
Timéa smiled, and smoothed away the frown from the bridegroom’s grave face.
“Well, then, for your sake I will lock all my doors to-night.”
(“See that they are secure,” whispered the dragon.)
Then followed a tender embrace and a long, long kiss.
“Do you pray, my beloved?”
“No; for the good God in whom I believe watches ever.”
(“How if He slept today?”)
“Forgive me, dearest Timéa; skepticism does not become a woman. Her adornment is piety; leave the rest to men. Pray to-night.”
“You know I was a Moslem, and was never taught to pray.”
“But now you are a Christian, and our prayers are beautiful. Take your prayer-book to-night.”
“Yes, for your sake I will learn to pray.”
The major found in the book of devotion Timar had once given his wife, the “prayer for brides.”
“I will learn it by heart to-night.”
“Yes, do so — do so!”
Timéa read it aloud. Athalie felt a diabolical rage in her heart. The man will be discovering the secret in the wall; he will keep Timéa up praying all night. Curses, curses on the prayer-book!
When the major left the anteroom, Athalie was already there. Timéa called from her room to light the major to the door, thinking there would be a servant there as usual; but today, as we know, they were engaged in anticipating the morrow’s feast. Athalie took the candle which stood outside, and lighted the major along the dark passage. The happy bridegroom had no eyes for any other woman’s face — he saw only Timéa, and thought it was the maid-servant who opened the door for him. He wished to be generous, and pressed a silver thaler into Athalie’s hand; then he started as he recognized the voice.
“I kiss your hand, kind sir.”
“Is it you, fraülein? A thousand pardons! I did not recognize you in the darkness.”
“No consequence, Herr Major.”
“Pardon my blindness, and give me back the insulting present, I beg.”
Athalie drew back with a mocking bow, hiding the hand which held the thaler behind her. “I will give it you back tomorrow — leave it with me till then; I have fairly earned it.”
Herr Katschuka swore at his stupidity. The inexplicable load he felt on his spirits seemed to have redoubled in weight. When he reached the street, he felt it impossible to go home, but went toward the main guard and said to the officer on duty, “My friend, I invite you to my wedding tomorrow; be so good as to let me share your watch to-night — let us go the rounds together.”
In the servants’ hall there was great fun. As the major had rung for the porter when he left, the mistress was known to be alone, and her maid went up to ask for orders. Timéa thought she was the one who had shown the major out, and told her to go to bed — she would undress herself; so the maid went back to the others.
“If only we had a drop of punch now,” said the porter, thrusting the door-key into his pocket.
As if by magic, the door opened, and in came Fraülein Athalie, bearing a tray of steaming glasses, which clinked cheerfully together. “Long live our dear young lady!” cried every one. Athalie set the tray on the table with a smile. Among the glasses stood a basin full of sugar well rubbed over with orange rind, which made it yellow and aromatic. Frau Sophie liked her tea made in that way, with plenty of rum and orange-sugar. “Are you not going to join us?” she asked her daughter.
“Thanks; I had my tea with our gracious lady. My head aches, and I shall go to bed.” She wished her mother good-night, and told the servants to go to bed in good time, as they must get up early next day. They fell eagerly on the punch, and found it perfectly delicious. Only Frau Sophie did not like it. When she had tasted the first spoonful, she turned up her nose. “This tastes just like the poppy-syrup that bad nurses give the wakeful babies at night.” It was so unpleasant to her that she could not take any more, but gave it to the cook’s boy, who had never tasted anything so good before. She said she was tired with her day’s work, and conjured the household not to oversleep themselves, and to take care no cat got into the larder; then she said good-night, and followed Athalie.
When she entered their bedroom, Athalie was already in bed. The curtains were drawn; she knew Athalie’s way of turning her back to the room and putting her head under the clothes. She hastened to get into bed.
But she could not get rid of the taste of that single spoonful of punch, which spoiled her enjoyment of the whole supper. After she had put out the light, she leaned on her elbow and looked toward the figure in the other bed. She looked, till at last her eyes closed and she fell asleep. Her dreams carried her back to the servants’ hall. She seemed to see them all asleep there — the coachman stretched on the long bench, the footman with his head on the table, the groom on the ground, using an overturned chair as a pillow, the cook on the settle, the house-maid on the hearth, and the cook’s boy under the table. Before each his empty glass; she alone had not drunk hers. She dreamed that Athalie, with bare feet and in her night-dress, crept up behind her and said in her ear, “Why don’t you drink your punch, dear mamma? Do you want more sugar?” and filled the glass with sugar up to the brim. But she noticed the repulsive smell. “I don’t want it!” she said in her dream. However, Athalie held the steaming glass to her mouth. She turned away, and pushed the glass from her, and with that movement she upset the bottle of water which stood on the table beside her, and all the water poured into the bed. That thoroughly awoke her.
And still she seemed to see Athalie before her with threatening looks. “Are you awake, Athalie?” she asked, uneasily; no answer. She listened; the sleeper could not be heard to breathe. Sophie got up and went to Athalie’s bed; it was empty. She could not trust her eyes in the dim twilight, and felt with her hands: no one there. “Athalie, where are you?” she murmured, anxiously. Receiving no answer, a nameless horror numbed her limbs. She felt blind and dumb; she could not even scream. She listened, and then fancied she was deaf: neither inside nor out was there the faintest sound. Where could Athalie be?
Athalie was in the secret room — she had been there a long time.
The patience of that woman, to be so long learning the prayer by heart! At last Timéa shut the book and sighed deeply. Then she took the candle and looked to see that all the doors were locked. She looked behind the curtains; her bridegroom’s words had implanted fear in her breast, and she looked round carefully to see if any one could get in. Then she went to the dressing-table, took down her plaits, wound her thick hair round and round her head, and put a net over it. She was not free from vanity, this young creature: that her hands and arms might be white, she rubbed them with salve and put on long gloves. Then she undressed, but before she lay down she went behind the bed, opened a closet, and took out a sword-hilt with a broken blade; looking tenderly at it, she pressed it to her breast. Then she put it under her pillow; she always slept with it there. Athalie saw it all. Timéa extinguished the light, and Athalie saw no more; she only heard the clock tick, and had the patience to wait.
She guesses when sleep will close Timéa’s eyes — that is the time. A quarter of an hour seems like an eternity; at last the clock strikes one. The picture of St. George with his dragon (which is by no means dead) moves aside, and Athalie comes out, barefoot, so that no sound is heard. It is quite dark in the room — the shutters are shut and curtains drawn; her groping hand finds Timéa’s pillow; she feels underneath, and a cold object meets her hand. It is the sword-hilt. What hell-fire runs through her veins from the cold steel! she too presses it to her heart. She draws the edge of the blade through her lips and feels how sharp it is. But it is too dark to see the sleeper — one can not even hear her gentle breathing; the blow must be well aimed, and Athalie bends her head to listen.
The sleeper moves, and sighs aloud in her dream, “Oh, my God!” Then Athalie strikes in the direction of the sigh. But the blow was not mortal: Timéa had covered her head with her right arm, and the sword only hit that, though the sharp steel cut through the glove and wounded her hand. She started up and rose on her knees in the bed; then a second blow caught her head, but the thick hair blunted it, and the sword only cut the forehead down to the eyebrow.
Now Timéa seized the blade with her left hand. “Murderer!” she screamed, sprung out of bed, and while the sharp edge cut the inside of her left hand, she caught the enemy with her wounded right hand by the hair. She felt it was a woman’s, and now knew who was before her.
There are critical moments in which the mind traverses a chain of thought with lightning speed: this is Athalie; her mother is next door; they want to murder her out of revenge and jealousy; it would be vain to call for help, it is a struggle for life. Timéa screamed no more, but collected all her strength in order, with her wounded hand, to draw down her enemy’s head and get the murderous weapon from her.
Timéa was strong, and a murderer never puts forth his full strength. They struggled silently in the darkness, the carpet deadening their footfalls. Suddenly a cry sounded from the next room. “Murder!” screamed the voice of Frau Sophie: at the sound Athalie’s strength gave way.
Her victim’s blood streamed over her face. In the next room was heard the sound of falling glass; through the broken window Frau Sophie’s screeching voice was heard resounding down the quiet street, “Murder, murder!”
Athalie let go the sword in terror, and put up both hands to loosen Timéa’s fingers from her hair: now she is the one attacked and she the one alarmed. When she got her hair free, she pushed Timéa away, flew to the opening of the hiding-place, and drew the picture gently over the entrance.
Timéa tottered forward a few steps with the sword in her hand, and then fell swooning on the carpet.
At Frau Sophie’s cry, double-quick march was heard in the street — the patrol was coming — the major was the first to reach the house. Frau Sophie knew him and called out, “Quick, quick! they are killing Timéa!” The major tore at the bell, thundered at the door, but no one came; the soldiers tried to burst it in, but it was too strong and would not give way. “Wake the servants,” shouted the major. Frau Sophie ran, with the courage born of great fear, through the dark rooms and passages, knocking up against doors and furniture, till she came to the servants’ rooms. Her dream had come true. The whole household lay asleep: a burned-down candle flickered on the table, and threw uncanny shadows on the grotesque group.
“There are murderers in the house!” screamed Frau Sophie, in a voice quivering with terror; the only answer was a heavy snore. She shook some of the sleepers, called them by name, but they only sunk back without waking up. Blows could be heard on the house door. The porter too was asleep, but the key was in his pocket; Frau Sophie got it out with great difficulty, and ran through the dark passages, down the dark stairs, and along the dark hall to open the door, while the fearful thought went with her — how if she were to meet the murderer? and an even more frightful doubt pursued her — suppose she should recognize that murderer?
At last she got to the door, found the key-hole, and opened it. A bright light burst in-there was the military patrol and the town-watchmen with their lanterns. The captain of the guard had come, and the nearest army-surgeon, all only half dressed in the first clothes they could find, with a pistol or a naked sword in their hand.
Herr Katschuka rushed up the steps straight to the door which led to Timéa’s room — it was locked on the inside: he put his shoulder against it and burst the lock.
Timéa lay before him on the ground, covered with blood, and unconscious. The major raised her and carried her to the bed. The surgeon examined the wounds, and said none of them was dangerous, the lady had only fainted. As soon as his anxiety for his beloved one was relieved, the thirst for vengeance awoke in the major —“Where is the murderer?” “Singular,” said the officer; “all the doors were locked inside — how could any one get in, and how could he get out?” Nowhere was there a suspicious mark; even the instrument of murder, the broken sword, a treasure kept by Timéa herself, and generally put away in a velvet box, lay blood-stained on the ground. The official physician now arrived: “Let us examine the servants.” They all lay sound asleep, and the doctor found that none of them was shamming: they were all drugged. Who could have done it?
Her mother gazed at him in silence and could not answer. She did not know. The captain opened the door of Athalie’s room, and they all went in, Frau Sophie following half fainting; she knew the bed must be empty.
Athalie was in bed and asleep. Her white night-dress was buttoned up to her neck, her hair fastened into an embroidered cap, her lovely hands lay on the quilt. Face and hands were clean, and she slept.
Frau Sophie leaned stupefied against the wall when she saw Athalie. “She too has been drugged,” said the doctor.
The army-surgeon came up and felt her pulse: it was calm. No muscle moved on her face, no quiver betrayed her consciousness.
She could deceive every one by her marvelous self-control; all but one — the man whose beloved she had tried to murder.
“Is she really asleep?” asked the major.
“Feel her hand,” said the doctor; “it is quite cool and calm.”
Athalie felt the major take hold of her hand. “But just look, doctor,” said he; “if you look closely you will see under the nails of this beautiful hand — fresh blood!”
At these words Athalie’s fingers suddenly clinched, and the major felt as if eagle’s claws were running into his hand. She laughed aloud and threw off the bedclothes. Completely dressed, she sprung up, looked the astonished men proudly up and down, cast a triumphant glance at the major, and threw a contemptuous look at her mother.
The poor woman could not bear it, and sunk fainting to the ground.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56