I have frequently heard the following marvellous story related by my grandfather as an actual episode in his life. I will give it, as nearly as I can remember, in his own words, leaving each reader to form his own opinion upon the incidents, without any commentary upon my part, farther than the statement, that my grandfather was a man whose veracity I had never any reason to doubt.
It was during a summer vacation that I met Karl Körner. I was reading hard for my degree; for having been somewhat idle and dissipated during the term, I found it necessary to spend what should have been my holiday among my books, For this purpose I pitched my tent at Bucksleigh, an ancient and romantic village in the New Forest. I was guided by several considerations in my choice of locality: first, it was a reasonable distance, even in those days, from London and Oxford; secondly, I was bitten about that time by an entomological mania, and here was the spot of all others for rare moths and butterflies; thirdly, a delightful and salubrious climate; and fourthly, not far away, near Stoney Cross, was the family seat of some college chums, whither, if books and butterflies became too monotonous, I could flee for a day or two's relaxation. These friends had very much pressed me to take up my abode wholly with them; but had I done so, I might as well have left Greek and Latin behind me, for all the use I should have made of them there; so I prudently declined, with the compromise I have mentioned.
The house I lodged in was at least as old as the Tudor days—pointed roof, overhanging stories, latticed windows, painted beams, dark oak staircases, panelled rooms, carved fireplaces, &c. It belonged to a family who had resided abroad for several years, and was let, during the summer months, in apartments to visitors. I had but one fellow-lodger when I first came to Bucksleigh, Karl Körner, a German, who, with his servant and the old woman who looked after the house, was, beside myself, its only inhabitant. From the first he curiously impressed me. In appearance he was the very beau-ideal of the mysterious German of romance. Long fair hair, blue eyes deeply sunken, pale hollow cheeks, a moody demeanour, and tall powerful figure—he might have been Charles Moor himself. In his habits he was reserved to moroseness. He had a weird way of talking to himself, and a strange trick of almost every moment casting sharp fearful glances over his shoulder, as though he fancied some unpleasant object were behind him. No one was suffered to enter his apartments save his own servant, a dark saturnine-looking man, as mysterious as himself. I questioned Mrs. Adams, the housekeeper, as to who he was. But she was as much in the dark, and far more curious than myself respecting him. About two months before his arrival she had received a letter from her master, who was then residing in Germany, to say that a foreign gentleman would, in the course of a few weeks, arrive at Bucksleigh. The choice of apartments was to be given him; she was, in all respects, to attend to his wishes, and, above all, was to ask no questions. The time of his sojourn was uncertain: he might leave at any moment. This was all the information she possessed.
There was something about Körner that attracted, and yet repulsed me. The mystery that excited my curiosity may be ascribed to the first feeling; the dark sinister expression that sometimes mingled with the gloom upon his face to the second. I frequently saw him wandering about in the forest during my entomological rambles; but both in and out of the house he avoided an actual meeting.
We had been fellow-lodgers about a fortnight, when, without having previously exchanged a greeting, we became suddenly acquainted. It happened in this way. I had been out in the forest all the morning butterfly-hunting, and having captured in my net a splendid red admiral, two peacocks, and some smaller fry, I was lying basking in the shadow of a huge beech, gloating over my prey, when, happening to look up, I saw the German leaning against a tree, with his arms folded, and his eyes bent upon me. I had not heard his footfall upon the soft turf, and his sudden appearance quite startled me. Without a word of introduction, he threw himself upon the grass, and entered into conversation as freely as though we had been old acquaintances. He spoke English fluently, although with a strong foreign accent. I found him to be a man of highly-cultivated mind. Our topics were Greek, Latin, poetry, entomology, scenery; and upon all his remarks were equally just and full of knowledge. He grew warm and eloquent, his cheeks flushed, his eye brightened, the whole man was transformed. Suddenly, without any warning, in the very midst of a speech, he stopped, the colour died out of his face, leaving a ghastly pallor in its place, while his eyes, full of horror, stared wildly upon vacancy. The change was so instantaneous, that for a moment I was struck as speechless as himself, my eyes instinctively following the direction of his. I could see nothing but the waving branches of the trees and the bright sunlight. Before I had recovered my self-possession sufficiently to speak, he sprang to his feet and hurried away; as the trees hid him from my sight, I saw him cast the old fearful look over his shoulder.
There was something about the incident that, in spite of the bright sunshine, gave me a strange superstitious feeling. After a long cogitation, I could come to only one conclusion, that the German was mad, and that his saturnine servant was his keeper.
A week passed away, and I saw no more of Körner, beyond a fleeting glance, as he passed my window on his way to the forest. In the mean time I had a visit from my college chums of a few miles off, to whom I related my German experiences, and thereby inflamed their imaginations with the most outrageous ideas. He was one of Schiller's robbers: Mephistopheles, a Werter, the wild huntsman, Salathiel, a banished count, and I know not what. Ensconced behind my window-curtains, they waited his passing to catch a glimpse of him, and the sight of his strange gloomy face made them almost seriously incline to those ideas that had been but jests before. The object of their visit was to induce me to go with them to a ball that was to come off in a fortnight at Southampton. But I heroically resisted all entreaties; so they left me to my studies in disgust.
Great was my surprise one evening, just as the twilight was closing in, at receiving this message from Mrs. Adams—"Would Mr. Serle honour Mr. Körner by his company, and sup with him that evening?" The old lady was all in a flutter, as she spoke the words. We exchanged looks. My curiosity was aroused to see the sanctorum that none had beheld, and I instantly accepted.
When I entered the room, I felt almost surprised to find that there was nothing peculiar in it, except that it was peculiarly comfortable. Although the weather was warm, a cheerful fire burned in the grate, and three large lamps illumined every part of the large sombre room.
"I like plenty of light," he said, after cordially greeting me; "I hate dark corners."
So it seemed, I thought. Our conversation turned upon German literature, which the translations of Scott, Coleridge, and others, and the imitations of a host of English writers, was bringing into fashion. His mind was deeply impregnated with its mystic and metaphysical character. I found him to be a profound believer in the wildest dreams of the Rosicrucian and the demonologist. Our conversation had naturally, although almost imperceptibly, drifted into this channel, and I could not help remarking the strange forced manner in which he spoke upon the subject, as though compelled to talk of it by some occult power against his will. I ventured to be sceptical, and shall never forget the look with which he turned on me.
"Your philosophy," he said bitterly, "rejects all things that do not come within the scope of its narrow reasonings, regardless of the fact, that every object that exists contains within itself unsolvable mysteries. Of the nature of our own souls, of their condition or destination, after they are freed from their bodies, we know nothing. Can we conceive eternity? can we conceive illimitable space? Space before matter? the principles of our own being? We know these things are, but we cannot bring them within the petty circle of our reason. In the face of these mighty mysteries, and of the yet mightier mysteries of the Christian faith, how dare man arrogantly assert that aught cannot be? One of your poets says, 'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.' Wisdom is usually purchased at a bitter cost."
There was something in his manner that deeply impressed me, and I would have continued the conversation, but he skilfully changed the subject, and we were soon deep in the discussion of the comparative merits of ancient and modern literature. In this agreeable discourse, aided by an excellent supper, some equally good wine and cigars, time glided on almost imperceptibly.
It was just upon the stroke of twelve when I wished him good-night. As I opened the door, I fancied I heard a sound like the rustling of a woman's dress. Thinking it was Mrs. Adams, who was the only female in the house, coming up to speak to me, I turned my head; but there was no one upon the landing or on the staircase. The sound passed me, and there was a flutter in the air, as though it were disturbed by some moving body. Following its supposed direction, my eyes fell upon Körner. In a few seconds a ghastly change had fallen upon him. His face was deadly pale, his eyes fixed with a look of horror, his hands convulsively clutching the arms of the chair upon which he sat. I was advancing to him, thinking he was ill, when a hand laid upon my shoulder held me back. I turned, and saw the German servant, who by word and gesture requested my absence. The next moment I found myself outside the door, and heard the key turned in the lock.
A week elapsed, during which Körner and I never once met. I had been hard at my books, had completely shaken off my late superstitious terrors, retaken to scepticism, and had thoroughly made up my mind that the German was the victim of some painful disease, of which I had witnessed the paroxysms.
It was the night of the ball, which I have before mentioned. I had had a letter from my friends that morning, as a last persuader, to meet them at Southampton, and accompany them to the ball. But I heeded not the voice of the charmer, and was farther strengthened in my virtuous resolution by the weather, which, uncertain for several days past, towards the evening in question assumed a most savage aspect: the rain descended in torrents, the wind blew a hurricane, and there were distant mutterings in the air that portended a thunder-storm. As I looked round my gloomy room, in the fading light, I could not help picturing with a sigh the brilliant ballroom at Southampton.
While thus meditating, there was a knock at my door. Before I could answer it, Körner stood before me. Even in the twilight I could perceive that his air was excited with a kind of forced gaiety.
"How horribly dull you are here!" he cried. "Come up to my room; I have a cheerful fire and plenty of light, a bottle of good wine, an irreproachable cigar, and Mrs. Adams is preparing an appetising little supper."
Now, after my one experience, I did not much care about passing the evening with Körner, so I began a polite apology about the necessity of study. But he impatiently interrupted me:
"Pshaw, man! it is the last opportunity you will have of refusing me."
"Are you going to leave us, then?" I inquired.
"Yes; my release is at hand, and I wish you to join me in celebrating it."
"Your release!" I reiterated.
"Yes; but we will not talk of it to-night; you will hear all about it to-morrow," he answered lightly.
After that I could not refuse his invitation.
There was a strangeness in his manner that I could not understand, which impressed me disagreeably. He was as gay as a Frenchman; he laughed, told anecdotes and doubtful adventures, sang German student songs, and was so unlike himself, as I had previously known him, that at times I had serious doubts whether I was waking or dreaming.
"I astonish you," he cried. "I have cast aside what you call the blue devils for to-night, and, as Shakespeare says, 'Richard's himself again:' what I was in my old student days, the merriest fellow within the walls of Bonn."
But I did not like his merriment—it was to me far more depressing than his gloom. I drank his hock, I smoked his cigars, and I laughed at his stories; but I felt all the time like one oppressed by a nightmare, and would have been delighted to have found an excuse to get down quietly to my own room.
In the mean time the storm was raging violently, the rain dashing in sheets against the windows, and we could hear the crash and moan of the forest as the wind rushed through the trees; and the thunder, nearing, though still distant, rolled sullenly through the air.
"A pleasant night for a journey!" he cried, in the light jesting tone he had assumed throughout the evening.
"You are not going a journey to-night?" I said.
"No; but Fritz has gone. I shall not start upon my journey till to-morrow morning—a far longer one than Fritz's."
I shuddered, I knew not why.
"Now, my friend, it is time that we separate," he said suddenly, rising, and holding out his hand.
The intimation was sudden, and not strictly polite; but I took the hint with the most cheerful alacrity.
"Pardon my abruptness, but I must now prepare for my journey."
An odd time, I thought, to begin preparations for a journey. As I wished him good-night, I heard the rustling as of a woman's dress behind me, felt a movement in the air, and the sensation of a passing body, just as on my previous visit, and on Körner's face fell the same ghastly look. My nervous system was highly wrought, whether by the shadow of coming events, or by the electricity of the atmosphere, I know not; and without another word I hurried out of the room. As before, I heard the key turned in the lock; but, as before, I did not hurry clown to my own room, for my limbs trembled so violently, and my head felt so dizzy, that I was obliged to lean against the wall for a moment, for fear of falling.
The tempest had reached its culminating point. The thunderclouds were upon us, and sent forth peal upon peal till the house trembled and shook as though swayed by an earthquake; the lightning flashed in sheets, and in streams of jagged fire, now blue as steel, now luridly red; the rain had abated, but the wind, rushing through the forest-leaves, sounded as though a furious mountain torrent or a roaring sea was coming down upon us; while the branches crashed, and groaned, and shrieked, as the hurricane swayed and broke and hurled them one against another. Never have I heard so awful a contention of the elements. I can never recall the memory of that terrible night without a shudder. And there I stood in the full blaze of the lightning, as it shone through the staircase window, with the fascination of terror upon me.
Suddenly through the din of the storm there rose a sharp wailing cry, that curdled my blood and bristled my hair. It came from the room I had just left. By a sudden impulse, which I could never explain, I resolved to try and solve the awful mystery that was about me. There was but one way. Across the front of the house ran a narrow balcony. The window I was standing against was in a line with those of Körner's room. With the rain beating down upon my bare head, and the wind sweeping round me and almost lifting me off my feet, I crept on to this balcony, and between an opening in the curtains peered into Körner's room. And this is what I saw.
The room was blazing with light, just as I had left it. With his back towards me, quivering and crouching, was the form of Körner; facing the window, and looking into his face, stood a woman. Her dress was that of middle-class German life, but her face was the most lovely I ever beheld; the hair was of the brightest, rarest yellow, the complexion faultlessly pure; the eyes large, dreamy, and of a deep violet; the nose and mouth of the most perfect shape. While I gazed, fascinated by her extraordinary beauty, a hideous transformation took place before my eyes. The clothes faded from her form, her beauty melted away like a vapour, and in its place my horrified gaze was fastened on a skeleton, on a grinning loathsome skull, out of whose mouldering recesses crawled bloated obscene worms. The vision was but of a second's duration, and then I saw the bones crumble before my eyes, and the skull totter and fall.
I saw no more. A mist gathered before my eyes, and the sickness of death overpowered me; but as I fell I heard a loud explosion, which sounded unlike the thunder that a moment afterwards mingled with its echoes.
When sense returned, I found myself lying upon the pavement of the balcony, saturated with rain, and cold as ice. The morning was just breaking; the storm had cleared away, all but the wind, which still blew hard, but in fitful dying gusts. With a dazed brain, upon which still lingered the dark shadow of the horrors I had witnessed, but no substantial idea, I mechanically sought my own apartments, and in the same automaton fashion swallowed a large glass of brandy, undressed, got into bed, and without any farther recollection fell fast asleep.
I was awakened by a sudden shock, and the sound of loud laughter. When I opened my eyes, I found myself upon the floor, and my friends from Stony Cross standing over me, convulsed with laughter, at, I presume, my ridiculous and scared appearance. In returning from Southampton, they had come several miles out of their way to pay me a visit. Upon hearing I had not risen, heated with champagne, and ready for any mischief, they entered my room, lifted me out of bed in my sheet, and bumped me not very gently upon the ground.
We had just sat down to breakfast when Mrs. Adams put her head in at the door, and beckoned me out mysteriously. "I beg your pardon, sir, for interrupting you, but I am so uneasy about Mr. Körner that I couldn't contain myself any longer."
"What is the matter?" I asked in great agitation.
"Well, you know he is an early riser, never in bed after six. It is now ten, and I have neither seen nor heard him. I have knocked at his door, and can get no answer."
"Where is the servant Fritz?" I inquired.
"He went away yesterday, saying he should not return for some days, and that I was to attend upon his master in the mean while."
I told her to wait until after breakfast, and I would see what could be done. All the horrors of the last night came vividly back upon my memory, filling me with evil forebodings. It was impossible to conceal my perturbation from my friends; and after a very little pressing, I told them of the housekeeper's fears, and certain of my own experiences; omitting all mention of what I had seen through the window, which would have excited only their ridicule.
The breakfast-table was abandoned; and while I proceeded to the German's chamber, the others waited the result at the farther end of the corridor. No answer was returned to my knock, and after a little hesitation we decided to send for a locksmith, and make a forcible entry. No one thought of entering by the windows, and I dared not propose it; I could not for my life have looked through them again. In a very short time the lock was taken off, and the door thrown open. The room was darkened by the curtains, save in one spot, where the sunbeams streamed through an opening, and fell full and brightly upon an awful object—the upturned blood-bespattered face of the German. He was quite dead; his hand still grasped a discharged pistol—he had blown his brains out.
I need scarcely remark that I did not pass another night under that ill-omened roof, but at once accepted my friends' invitation to return home with them.
Of course you are now anxious to know the explanation of the mysterious spectre and all other mysteries. All that I can tell you upon the subject was gathered more from inferences than from direct information. In Körner's writing-desk was found the miniature of a lovely girl, which I immediately recognised as the face I had seen in my vision; and beside it was a strange and horrible letter, of which I made a copy at the time, and which, as nearly as I can remember, ran thus:
"When you read these lines I shall be no more. Living, I am powerless to avenge your wickedness to me; but if there is a just God, my revenge will reach you from the grave. I have prayed unceasingly to be directed to a retribution as awful as the misery you have brought upon me. My prayer has been heard, and, mark me, scoff as you will in your sceptical conceit, it wall come to pass. In my dark hours of despairing agony, this is the vengeance I have engendered, and which I will execute. From the hour in which I draw my last breath I will haunt you. Fly to the furthermost extremities of the world, and my shadow shall still pursue you; alone or in a crowd, in the darkness of the night or in the brightest sunshine, you shall know no moment of your life in which I may not stand before you. And lest habit should in time dull the horror of my presence to your hard godless soul, in each visitation you shall behold the progress of the corruption of the buried body as it festers in the earth. As the body is at the moment I stand before you, in that guise shall you see me. And when the last stage is reached, when the bones crumble into dust, then shall thy earthly career close. Pray, then, if you can, that the tortures you will endure in this life may mitigate those prepared for you in the next."
Putting together the little information I gathered at various times, chiefly through Mrs. Adams, I framed this story. At Bonn there lived one Adeline Sturm, a burgomaster's daughter. She was the beauty of the town, had been educated far above her station, and was as notorious for her haughty and disdainful pride as for her personal charms. All the young men were madly in love with her, but upon all she looked down with equal scorn. Karl Körner was at that time a student at the University. He was a scion of a noble family, strikingly handsome, heir to a fine fortune, and the most heartless libertine in Bonn. The stories he was continually hearing of this girl's unimpressible nature excited his pique, and over a debauch he laid a heavy wager with a fellow-student that he would win her love, degrade her pride, and abandon her. He succeeded too well in all that he proposed. It was an act of monstrous villany; for he had not even the excuse of passion for accomplishing Adeline's ruin, while she loved him with all the fervour of her proud powerful nature. Upon discovering the conspiracy of which she had been made the victim, she took poison. From that time Körner was accursed; he wandered from land to land, from one division of the globe to another, but nowhere finding peace or rest.
A sceptical friend has suggested that the letter worked its object without any supernatural intervention. Written under such awful circumstances, under so powerful a conviction that it would be given to her to execute her implacable will, it worked upon the guilty conscience of her betrayer until his diseased imagination, constantly brooding upon its terrible suggestions, created for itself the very horrors threatened. In regard to my share in the illusion, his theory is this: "From the first, Körner impressed your mind with a sense of the abnormal and the mysterious. His behaviour in the forest gave a form to what had been before intangible, by suggesting the idea that he was haunted by some ghastly vision. The next stage in the mental process was reached on the occasion of your first visit to his apartments. The cold air, rushing through the open door and mingling with the overheated atmosphere within, rustled among some unseen objects, and suggested to your excited imagination that the Thing was about you, and from the nature of a sound, suggested a female apparition. Upon Körner's face you saw your own impressions reflected, but in his case intensified by a visual illusion. On the occasion of your last visit, every circumstance favoured the exquisitely-sensitive condition of your organs. There was a terrible storm raging; the air was charged with electricity—a most important point; when you looked through that window, Reason had entirely vacated her throne. You were utterly under the spell, and by one of those curious mental phenomena of whose occasional occurrence we have undoubted proof, the horrible illusion of Körner, intensified to an immeasurable degree by the agony of coming death, communicated itself to your mind, thus causing your vision to be similarly impressed."
Yery ingenious indeed, I tell him, but a good deal of Bishop Berkeley's metaphysics about it. There is a vast difference between dreaming that you are burned and the actual sensation.
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