"In the Snow" and other stories by Stefan Zweig

by Stefan Zweig

Three dramatic short stories by the author of Letter From an Unknown Woman:

1. In the Snow (1901) – Word comes to a Jewish community celebrating Hanukah in a small town in medieval Germany that a large group of religious fanatics are on their way with hate in their hearts and blood on their hands (4,400 words);

2. The Cross (1906) – A French officer is cut off behind enemy lines after an ambush during the Napoleonic War in Spain and desperately tries to survive amid the immeasurable hostility of the population (3,800 words);

3. The Wedding in Lyon (1927) – A group of condemned prisoners is awaiting execution in a makeshift prison in Lyon during the French Revolution when a new group of prisoners is brought in, and a young couple is miraculously reunited (3,600 words).


e-books with these stories [1] are available for downloading below.


1. IN THE SNOW

A little German town in the Middle Ages not far from the border with Poland, with the stocky sedateness so characteristic of the buildings of the 14th century. The colourful animation that usually prevails on its streets has given way to a sheen of white that stretches across the broad city walls and on the peaks of the towers that the night has already enveloped in a veil of mist.

Night is rapidly falling. The loud, confused agitation of the streets, the activity of many busy people has diminished to a steady trickle of sound that seems to be echoing from far away, only pierced by the monotonous song of the evening church-bells at regular intervals. The end of the working day has come at last for the tired, sleepy hand-workers, the lights are becoming ever more sparse and isolated, and finally go out altogether. The city is stretched out like a powerful animal, deep asleep.

All sounds have died out and even the quavering voice of the prairie wind has diminished to a soft lullaby; one can just hear the light lisping of the falling snowflakes as their meandering comes to an end . . .

Suddenly a vague sound can be heard coming from afar, like the distant beating of hoofbeats that are coming closer. The surprised watchman in the tower, overwhelmed with sleep, goes to the window to look out. And there he sees a rider in full gallop heading towards the gate, who a minute later asks for permission to enter in a raw voice harshened by the cold. The gate is opened and the man goes through, leading at his side a steaming horse that he confides to the gate-keeper, overcoming his reserves with a few words and a considerable sum of money; he then hurries off, in rapid strides that reveal his knowledge of the village geography, across the deserted market-place shimmering in its whiteness, through silent side-streets and snowed-over passageways, over to the far end of the little town.

There a few of small houses are pressed together as if mutually needing the support of one another. They are all without decoration, austere, blackened by smoke and somewhat askew, and they are all utterly devoid of animation hidden away as they are in these back streets. They give the impression that they have never known a happy celebration full of gayness and festivity; these closed and blackened windows seem as if they had never been opened to let in cheer and joyfulness, as if no bright ray of sunshine had ever shone playfully through their window-panes. Solitary, like frightened children afraid of others, they press themselves together in the narrow complex of the Jewish ghetto.

The stranger stops before one of these houses, the biggest and relatively most imposing. It belongs to the richest man of the small community, and also serves as its synagogue.

A glimmer of light penetrates between the folds of the closed curtains, and from the illuminated room voices singing a hymn ring out. The celebration of Hanukah has just peacefully begun, the celebration of jubilation at the great victory of the Maccabees, a day when the exiled nation oppressed by fate remembers its might of yesteryear, one of the few joyful days that law and life have granted them. But the chants are impregnated with melancholy and longing, and the metallic tones of the voices are rendered harsher by the thousands of tears that have been shed; the song rings out over the isolated little street like a hopeless complaint and fades away . . .

The stranger waits a moment immobile in front of the house, lost in thoughts and dreams, and heavy, swollen tears mix with sobs in his throat as he instinctively sings with them the ancient, sacred melodies that flow from his heart. His soul is filled with deep devotion.

Then he gathers himself together. With hesitating steps he goes up to the closed door and the knocker pounds powerfully on the door that trembles with the muffled sound.

And the trembling vibrates throughout the entire building . . .

Immediately the singing above stops as if at a given, prearranged signal. They have all become pale and and are looking anxiously at one another. At once the festive atmosphere has disappeared, the dream of the victorious power of Judah Maccabee, who in spirit had been standing encouragingly at their sides, has been dissipated, the brilliant kingdom of the Jewish people that had been glowing before their eyes has vanished, they are again poor, trembling, helpless Jews. Reality is staring them again in the face.

Frightful stillness. The prayer-book has fallen from the trembling hand of the prayer leader, no one fully masters their trembling lips. A horrible anguish has arisen in the room and has seized all their throats in its iron grasp.

They all well know why.

A terrible word had come to them, a new, unheard-of word whose bloody significance had been imposed upon them and their people. The Flagellants had appeared in Germany, wild religious fanatics who in the passion and agitation of their ecstasy flagellated their own bodies; drunken crazed hordes who had slaughtered and martyred thousands of Jews whom they wanted to forcefully tear away from their most sacred protection, the ancient belief of their fathers. And that was their worst fear, for they had all survived with a blind, fatalistic patience being attacked, beaten, robbed and subjugated; they had all lived through attacks in the middle of the night with burning and looting, and a shudder always ran through their bodies when they thought of such times.

And a few days beforehand the first rumours had been heard that a horde of them had burst into their region where the Flagellants had previously only been known by name, and that they were no doubt not far off any longer. Perhaps they were already here?

A terrible fear clutched at all of their hearts. They could see the bloodthirsty hordes once again wildly storming into their houses with their drunken, wine-sodden faces and with burning torches in their hands, already rang in their ears the heart-rendering cries for help of their women who were falling victim to the savage lust of the murderers, they could already feel the lightening blows of their weapons. It was like a nightmare, clear and realistic.

The stranger looked up and listened, and as no one opened the door he knocked again, knocks that again rang dully and menacingly throughout the silent, disturbed house.

Meanwhile the owner of the house, the prayer leader, whose undulating white beard and advanced age gave him the appearance of a patriarch, was the first to have somewhat mastered his feelings. In a low voice he murmurs: “As God wills.” And then he leans over to his granddaughter, a lovely girl who in her anguish resembles a doe turning her large, pleading eyes towards her pursuer: “See who it is out there, Lea!”

The young woman, upon whose face all eyes are concentrated, goes to the window with timid steps, where she draws the curtains apart with trembling, pale fingers. And then a cry comes from the bottom of her soul: “Praise God, just one man.”

“God be praised” rings out anew from all sides, like a sigh of relief. And now there is also activity among all those immobile forms on whom the terrible nightmare had weighed; several groups have taken form, some are standing in silent prayer, others are discussing with anguish and uncertainty the unexpected arrival of the stranger, who is now being shown through the door.

The whole room is filled with the heavy, oppressive odour of logs, and with the presence of so many people, all gathered around the richly-laden festive table on which the symbol of the holy evening, the seven-branched candelabrum, is standing, with each of its candles burning languidly in the somewhat smoky atmosphere. The women are wearing sumptuous gowns decorated with jewels, the men are wearing flowing garments with white prayer-shawls. And the narrow room is swept by a deep sense of solemnity, as it can only be on occasions of deep devotion.

The quick steps of the stranger are coming up the stairs, and then he comes into the room.

At the same time a sharp, biting gust of wind sweeps into the warm room through the open door. And icy coldness streams in with the snow-filled wind and chills them all. The gust of wind extinguishes the flickering candles in the candelabrum, except for one that still flicks back and forth in its death throes. Right away the room is enveloped a heavy, unpleasant gloom, as if suddenly the cold night had passed right through the walls. All at once the comfortable, peaceful atmosphere has disappeared, everyone feels the dreadful premonition that is implicated by the extinguishing of the sacred candles, and the superstition makes them cringe anew. But no one dares say a word.

At the door a tall, black-bearded man hardly more than thirty years old is standing, who quickly takes off the coat and cap with which he had protected himself from the cold. And in an instant, as his face becomes visible in the little flickering light of the last candle-flame, Lea rushes over and embraces him.

It is Joshua, her fiancé from the neighbouring town.

The others also gather excitedly around and greet him warmly, only to soon fall silent as he turns towards his bride with a serious, sad expression on his face; terrible, tragic events have worn deep furrows on his brow. All are looking anxiously at him, and he cannot prevent his words gushing out to express the onrushing flood of his feelings. He grasps the hands of those around him and the heavy secret softly escapes from his lips:

“The Flagellants are here!”

The eyes that had been looking at him questioningly have frozen, and he can feel how the pulses of the hands that he is holding have suddenly almost stopped. With trembling hands the prayer leader supports himself on the heavy table, so that the crystal of the glasses begins to sing out softly, swaying with trembling tones. Anguish again takes hold of the oppressed hearts and drives the last drops of blood from the shocked, desolate faces that are staring fixedly at the floor.

The last candle flickers once more and goes out . . .

Only the suspended lamp still casts light on the haggard, devastated people whom the word had struck like a lightening bolt.

A voice softly murmurs the resigned words of those used to the blows of fate: “God has willed it!”

But the others still stand there indecisively.

And the newcomer continues speaking, in a reluctant, torn voice as if he didn’t want to hear his own words.

“They are coming – many – hundreds – and many other people with them. They have blood on their hands – they have murdered, thousands – all of us, in the east. They have already been in my town . . . .”

He is interrupted by the frightful shriek of a woman, whose flood of tears cannot lessen the violence of her cry. A young wife only recently married throws herself down before him.

“They are there? And my parents, my brothers and sisters? Has something happened to them?”

He leans down to her and his voice sobs as he softly says to her, as if in consolation: “They no longer know suffering on this earth.”

And again everything has become still, deadly still . . . The frightful phantom of the fear of death is in them and makes them all tremble . . . Not one of them did not have a loved one in that other town.

And then the prayer leader, tears running down his silver-grey beard, begins to brokenly sing the ancient, solemn prayer for the dead, in a brittle voice that he can scarcely master. All join in. They are not even aware that they are singing, they know neither the words nor the melody that they mechanically follow, each is only thinking of his or her loved ones. And the song becomes ever more powerful, the breathing ever deeper, the suppression of the feelings that are flooding out becomes ever more difficult, ever more confused become the words, and finally they are all sobbing together in a wild, disheveled outbreak of sorrow. An infinite pain that no words can express has fraternally overtaken them all.

Deep silence . . .

Only from time to time a deep sob that cannot be suppressed . . .

And then again the heavy, numb voice of the speaker:

“They all called out to God. None survived. I was the only one who escaped thanks to the guidance of God . . .”

“His name be praised”, murmurs the whole group in an instinctive upsurge of devotion. The words from the mouths of the broken, trembling people sound like a well-worn formula.

“I came back late to the town from a journey; the Jewish ghetto was already full of plunderers . . . I wasn’t recognized, so I could have fled – but I was pushed on instinctively to where I belong, to my people, to be among those who were falling before the hammering blows of the fists. Suddenly one of them rode upon me, swinging at me – he missed and swayed in his saddle. And then suddenly the urge to live took hold of me, that mysterious chain that is joining us together here in our lamentation – an impulse gave me strength and courage, I wrenched him from his mount and rushed away myself on his horse onto the plains, into the dark night, to come to you here: I have been riding for a day and a night.”

He pauses for an instant. Then he says with a solid voice: “Enough of all that! First of all, what is to be done?”

And from all sides comes the answer:

“Flight!” – “We must flee!” – “Over to Poland!”

That is the only means of salvation that they know, the usual, shameful and yet irreplaceable means of struggle of the weak against the strong. No one thinks of resistance. A Jew should fight to defend himself? That is laughable and unthinkable in their eyes, they are no longer living in the time of the Maccabees; it is again the time of serfdom, of those who came out of Egypt, of the nation with the eternal stamp of weakness and servitude that after centuries of flight the years cannot wash away.

Therefore flight!

One of them timidly made the suggestion that they could ask the citizens of the town for protection, but a contemptuous smile was the answer. The destiny of the oppressed nation had always been in their own hands and in the hands of their God. They could no longer trust anyone else.

They are all now discussing the details of what is to be done. All of these men, whose only aim in life had been to amass money, who had considered wealth as the summit of human happiness and achievement, now agree that no sacrifice would be too great if it could hasten their flight. All of their belongings had to be converted into ready money, even under the most unfavourable conditions; wagons had to be procured, with teams of horses and means of protection from the cold. In one stroke the fear of death has done away with the ingrained characteristics of their people, just as their individual personalities are merged together into a common will. In all the pale, discouraged faces thoughts are directed towards one single objective.

And when the morning shot its blazing torches into the sky everything had already been discussed and decided. With the mobility of a nation that has wandered throughout the world, they had adapted themselves to their harsh destiny of exile, and their final decisions and dispositions rang out again in prayer.

Each went out to accomplish their part of the common task.

And under the steady song of the snowflakes that had already built high walls in the glimmering streets many sighs died down . . .

The mobile door of the great town gate had fallen ominously down behind the last wagon of the refugees . . .

The moon only shone weakly in the sky above, but her beams silvered the myriads of snowflakes dancing extravagant figures that accumulated on their clothes, that flitted about the snorting nostrils of the horses and that crunched under the wheels making their way with difficulty through the thick masses of snow.

From inside the wagon came whispering in low voices. Women exchanged melancholy, lightly singing words recalling memories of their home town that still lay there in its secure mass, conscious of its force, close before their eyes; clear children’s voices asking questions and wondering about a thousand things gradually became quieter and rarer and finally merged into a steady breathing, set off from the sonorous tones of the men, who were worriedly discussing their future prospects and murmuring prayers in low voices. All were huddled closely together in the consciousness of their sense of community and from instinctive fear of the cold that was blowing in icily from the little holes and openings and that was freezing the fingers of the drivers.

The lead wagon stopped.

Immediately all the other wagons in the column also come to a halt. From all of the mobile tents pale faces poked out to learn why. The patriarch descended from the leading wagon and everyone followed his example, for they all had understood the reason for the stop.

They were not yet far from the town; through the white drizzle one could still dimly see its tower that rose like a menacing hand over the broad plain, and from whose peak there was a bright glow like that of a precious stone on a ring.

Here everything was flat and white, like the frozen surface of a lake. Scattered about could be seen little fenced mounds of equal heights, under which they knew were their loved ones who, exiled and solitary like their whole nation far from its original homeland, had found here a quiet, eternal resting-place.

Deep silence, only broken by light sobbing.

And hot tears run down the frozen, long-suffering faces and become drops of ice upon the snow.

All fear of death is gone and forgotten as they looked at the deep, silent tombstones. And they are all overcome at the same time with an endless, tearful, wild longing for this eternal, quiet calm in “the good place”, together with their loved ones. So much of their childhood was sleeping under the white covering, so many sacred memories, so much infinite happiness that they would never again be able to experience. One and all were filled with longing for “the good place”.

But time is pressing them on.

They creep back into the wagons pressed tightly close to other, for while they hadn’t felt the biting cold when they were outside, now the icy frost again creeps over their shivering, quaking bodies and sets their teeth chattering. In the gloom of the wagons they look at one another with expressions of ineffable anguish and endless suffering . . .

Their thoughts constantly turn to the way they had come, for the wide traces of the wagons in the snow lead back to the place of their longing, to “the good place”.

It is past midnight. The wagons are already far from the town, in the middle of the immense plain brightly illuminated by the moon, whose glimmering reflections on the falling snow make it seem like white walls of curtains.The powerful horses tiredly stamp through the deep drifts that slowly rise up all around them; slowly, almost unnoticeably, the vehicles advance ever more hesitatingly, at every instant they seem to be on the verge of standing still.

The cold has become frightful and cuts like steel knives into their bodies that have already lost much of their mobility. Little by little the wind is growing stronger, singing wildly and rattling throughout the wagons. The tent coverings are constantly shaken and almost ripped away as if by giant hands that were tearing at them, and only with the greatest effort can they be more solidly fastened by the frozen hands.

And the storm rages ever stronger and under its song can be heard the praying, lightly whispering voices of the men, whose icy lips can only form words with the greatest effort. The whistling of the wind drowns out the stunned, frightened sobbing of the women and the headstrong whining of the children whose lethargy had been overcome by the strength of the cold.

The wheels roll on, groaning, through the snow.

In the last wagon Lea is nestled in the arms of her fiancé, who is recounting the great disaster in a sad, monotonous voice. And he wraps his strong arms around her small, maidenly body as if he wanted to protect her from the aggression of the cold and the pain. She looks at him with thankful eyes, and in the whirl of complaints and storm-sounds a few tender, melancholy words are exchanged that help both of them forget thoughts of danger and death . . .

Suddenly everyone in shaken by a hard jolt.

And then the wagon stops still.

Through the raging flood of the storm shouts, the sound of whips and the murmur of excited voices that will not be calmed can be heard coming confusedly from the leading wagons. People leave the wagons, hurry forwards through the biting cold to where one of the team of horses has fallen down and brought the other down with it. Men have gathered around the animals wanting to help but there is nothing to be done, for the wind is blowing at them as if they were weak, carefree dolls, the snowflakes are blinding their eyes, their hands are frozen and powerless, for their fingers are lying one against the other like inert strips of wood. And all around there is no possibility of help, just the plain that in proud consciousness of its endlessness fades away without horizons into the snowy twilight, and the storm that indifferently engulfs their cries.

Then the full, tragic consciousness of their situation is thrust upon them. Death is reaching out towards them in a new and frightful form that they can only helplessly wait for, powerless against the irresistible, unconquerable forces of nature, against the unconquerable weapon of the winter cold.

The storm incessantly trumpets in their ears: here you must die –, die –

And their fear of death becomes a helpless resignation to their fate.

No one has said it in words, all have come to the thought together at the same time. They climb awkwardly back into the wagons as best they can with their stiff limbs, close by one another, there to die.

They hope for help no longer.

They cuddle up to one other, each to the one they love the most, to be united in death. Outside the storm is singing its eternal song of accompaniment, a song of death, and the flakes build a great, shimmering coffin around the wagons.

And slowly death comes upon them. Through all the corners and pores the icy, piercing chill flows in, like a poison that calmly, sure of success, takes hold of one member after another . . .

The minutes pass slowly by, as if they want to give death enough time to complete its task . . .

Long, heavy hours go by, every one of which carries off despairing souls into eternity.

The storm sings out gaily and laughs in wild mockery at this everyday drama. And the moon unthinkingly spreads its silver over life and death.

In the last wagon there is deep silence. Some are already dead, others are in a state of hallucination that somehow renders death more attractive to those dying. But all are still and lifeless, only some thoughts are still shooting about like hot bolts of lightening . . .

Joshua is holding his fiancée with cold fingers wrapped around her. She is already dead, but he doesn’t realize it yet . . .

He is dreaming . . .

He is sitting with her in the room thoroughly warmed by soft currents of air; the golden candelabrum is flaming with its seven candles, and they are again sitting around it all together as before. The gleam of the joyful feast is reflected in their smiling faces that are saying friendly words and prayers. And long-dead people are coming through the main door, his dead parents too, but that no longer amazes him. And they are kissing each other tenderly and speaking familiar words. And ever more people are coming closer, Jewish people in ancient faded costumes and robes, and heroes are coming, Judah Maccabee and all the others; they are sitting down with them and are talking and are gay. And more are always arriving. The room is full of forms, his eyes are becoming tired by the mass of people who are continually wandering around ever more and more rapidly and pushing into one another, his ear is buzzing with the whirl of noises. His pulse is pounding and hammering, heavier, ever heavier . . .

And suddenly all is quiet, it is over . . .

Now the sun has risen and the snowflakes, that are still continually swirling about, glow like diamonds. And the broad mound covered with snow that has arisen overnight from the plain is glimmering as if covered in precious stones.

It is a strong, cheerful sun, almost a Lent sun, that has suddenly begun to shine. And in fact spring is not far off. Soon it will make everything crisp and green again and will remove the white linen from the grave of the poor, lost, frozen Jews, who have never in their lives known a springtime . . .


2. THE CROSS

It was in the wartime year of 1810. A huge cloud of acrid smoke rolled over the main road towards the Catalonian town of Hostalrich that the Spanish had so heatedly defended and the French so incessantly attacked. From time to time a light waft of air tore a rent in the white covering from which emerged shadowy, heavy wagons, loosely grouped soldiers and tired horses grinding forwards - a supply train under the protection of an experienced colonel and his troops. Sinuous and oblique, the white road snaked along clammy soil in the hilly countryside up towards a small wood that flamed violet with its outer rim reddened under the setting sun. The cloud of dust had already reached the shadow of the trees that silently waited the arrival of the creaking convoy of wagons.

Suddenly a shot rang like a rocket out of the obscurity. Clearly a signal. A second later murderous bursts of rapid fire rained down on the convoy that had been cut in two. Soldiers fell left and right before they had time to seize their rifles, and the frightened horses rose up neighing so that the wagons overturned or rammed into each other. With a glance, the colonel took in the situation: resistance was madness, flight dangerous. His voice rang out like a trumpet over the din. He ordered an attack on a flank, abandoning the transport wagons and the wounded to the enemy. The drumrolls rattled frenetically under the feverish hands of the little drummer, and the French sprang impetuously and irresistibly in disorder against the left side of the road into the wood, that bizarrely began to be full of life. Flashes blazed down out of the treetops, that swayed under the unaccustomed weight, dark forms streaked down like black snakes and sometimes a dull mass fell like a ripe fruit from the angry, swinging branches. Spaniards who had been squatting in the bushes fled before the blindly-striking bayonets of the French, who swept desperately forward towards the clearing in the heights. All the time there were the clamour of shots and cries that resonated in terrifying echoes. At their head, pistol and sword in hand, the colonel stormed forward. Suddenly his arm flew up in the air with fist clenched. His foot had caught in a root and then, as he fell, his head smashed so heavily against a tree trunk that he fell unconscious into the darkness of a bush, whose leaves whipped back into place to envelop him completely. The struggle swept on past the unconscious man.

When the colonel opened his eyes again everything was dark and silent. Over him the branches swayed in the evening dusk, the air was filled with muffled rustling. When he tried to raise his head up he felt blood on his lips. With precaution he ran his hands over the welts that the whip-like branches had raised on his face during his fall. And straightaway the memory of what has happened came back to him. The wind clearly carried from the site of the attack the unmistakable noise of harnessed horses and wheels rolling into the distance. Clearly the victorious guerrillas were taking their booty away. Already a dull pain mingled with his first thoughts: the colonel realized that the control of his destiny had slipped out of his hands and now was more a question of chance. He was alone in an unknown forest, alone in enemy territory. A reflection from his sword, the cracking of a twig in the underbrush could betray him, a defenceless booty to be tortured by the rebels. For ever since Augereau had strewn the route with improvised gallows, ever since Spaniards had been executed in masses without due process of law, the French had found horrible traces of revenge in abandoned villages: the blackened bodies of soldiers burnt slowly over a fire, the decaying corpses of impaled prisoners, frightening images of agony endured and animalistic cruelty. All that flashed through his head so quickly, so crudely, that he shuddered as if shaken by a fever. The foreboding forest that surrounded him rustled ever more sombrely.

The colonel reflected, rejecting impulsive decisions. Only flight was possible, flight by night out of the wood, flight either to Hostalrich or back up the road until he encountered other French troops. But, he felt, he must flee at any price, so strongly did the thought of his pitiful defencelessness burn through his consciousness. But the feeble light that still lingered over the treetops condemned him for the moment to inactivity. Now, lying immobile under the bush with grim lips and blazing eyes, he would have to wait, to wait until the round disk of the moon that was penetrating with a glowing green halo through the evening fog rose up into the sky; he had to listen attentively to every vibration of the earth, every trembling movement of the air, ever bird cry from the depths of the forest, every moan in the branches shaken by the evening wind. Memories of the interminable Egyptian nights filled him with horror, memories of that sulphurous yellow night sky brimming with unbounded silence and unnameable menace. The full weight of the hopelessness of his forsaken situation hung upon his consciousness.

Finally after hours and hours, when the forest seemed to be frozen in the cold moonlight, he cautiously crept on his knees back to the site of the attack, trembling not so much from fear as from a fever of uncertain expectancy. With infinite precautions that were terrible torture for his state of excitement he felt his way forward on all fours through the matted shrubs and the solid network of tree roots. The way from tree to tree took an eternity. Finally the road, as bright as a pond in the moonlight, shone in front of him in the sleepy gloom of the trees bordering the road.

Breathing heavily he got up to hurry over to the abandoned way, pistol in hand and sword at the ready. Then – he pulled himself together – a shadow moved just before him. And came back again. And again there and back, vaguely and yet palpably like a cold breeze.

The colonel gripped his pistol and stared into the darkness of the wood. But no noise came out. And yet: the shadow crept steadily again over the gravel on the road, and restively, eerily, went back out again. Went back and forth like a pendulum, secretly and silently, a ghost in the night. Breathlessly the colonel continued on his way. And was suddenly chilled as his eyes turned up towards the moonlight.

Just above his head, on the forward-leaning branch of a young cork tree, hung a naked body, pale and shimmering gruesomely in the chalky glare of the moon. Swinging in the peaceful rhythm of the shadows on the road. And as his shocked glance went from tree to tree, the horrible sight was multiplied. Dead, tied up in the shadows of the treetops and only faintly visible in the ghostly twilight, seeming to wink and nod with fantastic gestures, the pale corpses swung restlessly back and forth in the wind. His breath rattled out from the colonel’s throat as he looked at the twisted faces of his soldiers, mockingly covered with their bearskin caps. His brave soldiers, with whom he had only yesterday joked over the watch fire, hung like plucked, eviscerated chickens, strangled by brigands, by thieves, by Spaniards, first assassinated and then martyred, despoiled, spat upon! Tottering from rage he sprang up and in a crazed rage to do something pounded his fists against the hard tree trunks. And threw himself down again with teeth clenched, ripping out and crushing up roots, feverish in the torment of his defencelessness, burning with the desire to do something, to roar out, to strike, to throttle, to murder. He was overtaken by an atrocious, burning upsurge of rage and despair. And always those shadows over the road and that muffled rustling of the woods! For the first time in many years the Colonel felt his eyes burning with tears, for the first time the name of Napoleon left his lips with a curse, that he had sent him to this country of murderers and mutilators of corpses. And this was all jumbled up by his feverish, stunned rage. It swelled up like fire in his hands.

Over there, suddenly, a noise! A footstep . . . Blood and heavy breaths, fever and rage, thoughts and feelings stormed through him in a second of expectancy. And truly, steps were approaching. Already there was a shadow between the trees over there where the road curved into the wood. Instinctively he huddled down in the dark, his weapons avidly at the ready, his chest breathing heavily and with jubilation as he recognized a Spaniard in the fleeting moonlight. A messenger perhaps, a shepherd, a marauder, a straggler, a peasant, only a beggar perhaps – but – something shone and moved in his hands: a Spaniard, a murderer, a swine. Rage and willpower feverishly combined with one objective. He let the lurking Spaniard advance one more step, then threw himself with a muffled cry of rage on the terrified man, grasped his throat convulsively with his left hand, tightly throttling his startled cry with the edge. And then – calmly looking grimly into the bulging eyes of the death-spasm – he plunged his knife into his victim’s back, slowly at first, grimly and sufficiently savouring. And then in a burst of rage again and again, quicker and quicker in the back and throat, stronger and stronger, until finally the blade, glancing off a vertebra, drove into his own hand. The pain and the flowing of warm blood brought his rage under control. With a gesture akin to disgust he shook the body away from him so that it tumbled, spinning, onto the ditch and fell beyond with a dull sound.

With a single deep breath he inhaled the cool night air. He felt wonderfully liberated. He no longer felt anger, anguish, fear, regret, fervour - only the cool, so cool, moon-cool, fully-swollen air that the softly rising breeze coursed over his lips. Force, courage and quick reasoning ran through him who was once again a colonel of Napoleon. Calmly and surely his thoughts turned from the past to the future. The corpse of the dead man that he had so quickly killed in a blind rage would betray him, that he foresaw clearly. As he bent over the distorted face that in the varying moonlight almost seemed to be moving like a living ghost, the glassy eyes were staring at him with with an uncanny expression. But the Colonel felt neither fear nor regret, not even a sudden shudder of momentary horror. Steadfastly he took hold of the corpse, pulled it through the resisting bushes to the the hiding-place that had already protected him, and threw the body heavily into the grove. He breathed steadily. No turmoil was churning through his body, but he began to feel tired after the tension of so many terrible hours. The morning could no longer be far off, for already the moonlight in the bushes was beginning to wane. So he gave up thoughts of flight. And without thinking about another plan, he threw himself down on the ground, scarcely two strides away from the corpse, obeying only his feelings of exhaustion. And slept deeply and heavily, like those Italians and Austrians united in death on the field of battle.

Waking up in the golden light of a cloudy morning after this night of horror, the Colonel, shivering in the early frost and throttled by a bitter pressure on his neck, considered his desperate situation. Recognisable as a soldier, not knowing the language, he didn’t dare take a step out of this wood that surrounded him. He had to wait, sedately to wait there until evening, he had to hope for a troop of French soldiers passing by, for something unheard-of, improbable. Slowly, like a animal gnawing at him, another voice rose up within him, unruly and excruciating: hunger was tearing at his insides. And thirst was burning his lips. A frightful day of torment began; thoughts, burning acridly like the moisture of the earth that he sucked up from torn-out roots, furrowed into his brain. He played restlessly with his loaded pistol that could end everything. Only the pain, the pride of finishing like an animal in the wild, uselessly, without struggle, far from his troops, withheld his finger from the trigger. In a dull state of terror he remained stretched out for hours on end, for the eternity from morning to evening. Round about him, life continued in its arrogantly tranquil pace; there were from time to time sounds from the road of passers-by that for an instant filled him with horror, but then hours followed filled only with the roar of the wind and the rustling of the branches in the trees. No one came by to take away the barriers of his invisible prison; like a man wounded in the field of battle groaning under the empty sky, he remained lying there in the wood with flabby hands and a burning forehead, sweltering under the rising sun.

Finally after hours of senseless anguish the rays of the sun became more oblique. The evening came, and with it a desperate decision. With a sudden gesture the Colonel tore off his clothes and threw them into the gloom. Then he groped with his fingers through the mass of leaves to where the murdered Spaniard lay on his face, pulled them away and, piece by piece, took off all his clothes and tore the bloody cloak away from the death-cramped hand. And without a tremor, urged on by his final immovable resolve, he dressed himself in the Spanish outfit, the cloak hanging down his back with the broad trace of blood, still damp, that had flowed over it. This way he could flee, he could beg for his bread, could relieve the burning, choking hunger that tore at him, could escape from this net of horror, this forest of death. He wanted to live among men, not like an animal among corpses, harassed by fear and hunger; he wanted to rejoin his army, his Emperor, be it at the cost of his honour. A sob hung in his throat as he saw his uniform lying there like a corpse, the uniform that he had worn through twenty battles, that had been to his soul like a mother with her child. But hunger drove him forth, onto the road, into the twilight. As he turned back one last time for a farewell he perceived through the glint of his tears something gleaming like an eye. It was his Cross of Honour, that Napoleon himself had awarded him on the field of battle. With his bloody dagger he cut it off and hid it in his pocket. And went on, pushed himself forwards, hurried, rushed onto the road.

He knew that scarcely a mile from the wood there was a small, desolate village. His company had stayed there, and he thought uncomfortably – tormented by his raging hunger and the hammering of blood in his temples – of the circular well on the central square where the horses had drunk. The dark face of the Spaniard with its barely-restrained arrogance also rose up in his mind, but everything, absolutely everything was dissolved in the one single feeling: hunger! And so he hurried almost tottering along the already-darkened country road, his face deeply marked by the effort, he hurried and hurried, to overcome the hunger by the effort of hurrying, he hurried with much wheezing until he finally saw the houses, narrow and interlaced, rising out of the diminishing evening gloom. He groped his way to the plaza and at first let the gushing water run down his throat, and plunged his hands and his burning forehead in its coolness. A moment of well-being ran through him for the first time in so many hours. But in the next instant he felt hunger again racking his body like a fist, it pushed him on ahead to the nearest door. Feverishly he knocked on the brittle wood. An old woman, her yellowish face traversed by wrinkles, looked out at him through the half-opened doorway with angry, mistrustful eyes. He indicated his status of deaf-mute by pointing to his lips and made pleading gestures. His soldier’s heart was dead in that second, buried in the wood over there with his sword and his uniform. The woman turned away in refusal and started to shut the door. But the famished man, as if overwhelmed by the oily odour of food that wafted through the vapourish atmosphere of the house, forgot all his pride, now was no more than an animal in his furious urgency, and took hold of the frightened, retreating woman’s arm to implore her. A flare of insanity flamed abruptly in his eyes. Instead of answering, she launched the massive door against the forehead of the intruder, so that he staggered back in a daze. A savage French swearword flew out from his lips: horrified, the Colonel looked around. Thank God, no one had heard him; he could continue to go on begging as a deaf-mute. And he did so, did it with a burning feeling of shame; he went from house to house until finally he had in his hand some lumps of gold-brown bread and five or six moist olives. With greedy impulsions he gobbled it all down, ridding himself of hunger, disgust and shame all together, and ate like an animal with dulled eyes and a twisted face. Before he had passed by the last blackened hovel of the little village, his hands were empty.

A terrible question arose again along with the encroaching shadows of the night. Where to go now? He had wanted to flee back along the way that the column had come. But now he had lead in his feet. All his alertness was shattered. Since he had put on the foreign clothes and had gone begging from house to house, courage and audacity had left him; all his will to live had become enfeebled and listless. Dulled sleepiness filled his entire being. And unconsciously he went back again into the woods that swallowed him up, that seemed to hold him and to draw him on with its secret power. The road that he had previously gone along with his soldiers cheerfully and without care led him back into the wood, where death had been lying in wait for them, where it was still lurking between the black, ghostly-rustling branches. But he was driven on as in a dream. The need to rest, just to rest, to dissolve himself in the languor of rest overwhelmed him in the gloom of the woods. He climbed with difficultly up the embankment and let himself sink down helplessly, without thinking, right on the edge of the road. He dared not go any further, to avoid having to look at the corpses of his dead companions, to avoid seeing his soldier’s uniform again, that bloody rag that lay arrogantly there in the shadows, to avoid seeing the intimation of death it symbolised. As devout as a priest, he pressed the cross of honour in his pocket. It was his cheer, his claim, his hope.

And the night began again, the second, frightful night, a moonlit night with a great many cold stars, with the dreariness of a clear, arched, endlessly still firmament, that cast its heavy loneliness down upon him. The Colonel stared with his tearless, burning, crazed eyes at the road that stood out white there against the insensitive darkness. What would come along this road? Hope, liberation, friends? A stagecoach perhaps, that would take him along, or French troops? But all these thoughts were mixed together in a great muddle, interleaved with the rustling of the leaves in the gloom, the far-off twinkling glitter of the stars and the gleaming rays of the moon. He lay in this solitary wood like in a grave.

In the early morning a shrill call woke the Colonel from his sleep. A bird’s cry, seemingly, dreamily piercing through the web of morning haze. But then again – was it not a bizarre dream? – no, quite sharp, very clear, the warning sound of a horn, a trumpet signal of oncoming troops . . .

His blood rose in a sudden surge. Could that really be French troops, friends, rescuers? Could he really return to the land of the living? Impossibly crazed jubilation rose from his throat. He sprang up – and there, on the road, he saw them coming along, troops of French soldiers in loose columns; he saw the caps, the sabres, the banners, the canons. A relief corps for Hostalrich, certainly.

Then he sprang forward, jubilation overriding all caution. Forgetting his destiny, the danger, the suffering, stumbling in his crazed excitement, he rushed towards the liberators whirling his cloak about him in greeting and with the other hand holding his pistol. And a shriek, an animalistic shriek of inhuman jubilation burst from him into the air, broke out over the morning.

As he stormed through the glade, the inevitable happened. Two, ten shots – a whole salvo – martyrised the apparent Spaniard who – still careening forward in a heated run – hesitated, staggered and fell down streaming blood. The battalion quickly formed itself. They waited for the expected onslaught, signals rang out, trumpets blared. And then complete silence. All had arms at the ready, stood solidly in expectation, waited with bated breath. But no enemy showed himself, and the scouts that had been sent forward declared that nothing was there. Then the battle formation was relaxed. Without thought of an error – it was only a Spaniard – the soldiers shouldered their guns and the column advanced into the wood towards Hostalrich.

Just a few soldiers left ranks to plunder the corpse. Paying no attention to the moans of the dying man, the soldiers tore off his clothes and searched the pockets. And a boundless anger overtook them when they found the Cross of the Order in a bloody handkerchief in the man’s pocket. A Napoleon’s Cross in the pocket of the Spanish bandit! With bitter kicks they smashed at the apparent murderer’s head with their boots, hammered the naked corpse with enraged blows and, swearing, stomped on his body; then they flung the corpse of the unlucky man into the field so heavily that, with arms swinging wildly in the air, he fell down spread-eagled as a monstrous bright cross, clear against the black, scorched stretch of meadow.


3. THE WEDDING IN LYON

On the 12th of November 1793, Barère presented to the French National Convention the fatal decree against the separatist and eternally rebellious Lyon that ended with the lapidary words: “Lyon is fighting against liberty, Lyon no longer exists.” He declared that the buildings of the rebellious city must be levelled, its monuments be reduced to ashes and that its very name had to be eliminated. The Convention hesitated for eight days to approve such complete destruction of France’s second biggest city, and even after its ratification their delegate Couthon, assured of the secret backing of Robespierre, only reluctantly carried out the order worthy of Herostratus [2]. To maintain appearances he convened the population with the greatest pomp to the Place de Bellecourt and symbolically tapped with a silver hammer on buildings to be destroyed; but the shovels only brought down a few of the splendid facades, and the muffled sound of the terrible guillotine on its downward journey was rarely heard. Reassured by this unexpected mildness, the city, that had terribly suffered from the civil war and the months-long siege, begin timidly to hope again when suddenly the humane, scrupulous tribune was recalled and in his place Collot d’Herbois and Fouché appeared in the Liberated City – for that was the name of Lyon from now on in the decrees of the Republic – with their official scarves proudly in evidence. Then what had been thought of as just a simple decree designed to frighten them became overnight grim reality. “Nothing has been done up to now” declared impatiently the first report of the new tribunes to the National Convention, to demonstrate their patriotic energy and to incriminate their less zealous predecessor, and then began the terrible executions that Fouché, the “mitrailleur de Lyon [3], did not like to be reminded of during his later career as the Count of Otranto and defender of legitimacy.

Instead of the spades that were slowly performing their demolition work, explosive mines now brought down whole series of splendid buildings; instead of the “unreliable and inadequate” guillotine, mass fusillades and grapeshot eliminated hundreds of condemned with a salvo. Spurred on daily by new and more incisive decrees, justice mowed like a scythe far and wide its enormous harvest of victims, day after day, the quick-flowing Rhône had long been used to overcome the too-lengthy business of digging graves and burials, and the prisons could no longer house all of the suspects. So the cellars of official buildings, schools and convents were used to provisionally house the condemned, but only momentarily, as the scythe mowed quickly and straw rarely warmed the same body two nights in a row.

On a sharp, frosty day during those bloody months a troop of condemned prisoners was led into the cellar of the city hall to become one of those tragically short-lived communities. At noon they had been taken one after the other before the commissioner and their fate had been sealed during a brief interrogation; now the sixty-four condemned men and women were sitting in disorder in the low-vaulted, gloomy darkness that reeked of wine barrels and moss and that a pitiful chimney-fire in the front room coloured more than it heated. Most had lethargically thrown themselves down on the straw, others were hastily writing good-bye letters in flickering candle-light on the one wooden table that has been left there, as they knew that their lives would come to an end sooner than the candle whose bluish smoke quivered in that frigid room. No one spoke other than in whispers, and so the sound of the muffled explosions of the mines in the streets above and the subsequent collapse of the houses penetrated clearly into the frozen silence of their cell. Already the stunning rapidity of events had eliminated all capacity for emotion and clear thinking in them; most lay immobile and silent in the gloom like in an ante-chamber of their grave, waiting for nothing and no longer turned towards world of the living.

At about seven o’clock in the evening sharp, energetic steps were suddenly heard at the door, rifle-butts clanged and the rusty latch slid open. Instantly they were all startled: could it be that instead of the sad custom of being granted one last night their last hour has already come? In the cold draught of the open door shone the bluish light of a candle that seemed to leap out as if it wanted to flee its wax frame, and its flickering cast the fear of the unknown on them all. But soon the sudden disquiet was calmed; the prison-master was only bringing in a new group of condemned prisoners, some twenty of them, that he escorted wordlessly down the stairs into the over-crowded room without indicating any particular place for them. Then the heavy iron door slammed shut again.

The prisoners cast unfriendly glances on the newcomers, for oddly enough human nature is able to rapidly adapt everywhere, and even in flight is able to feel at ease and in one’s right. So the earlier arrivals already quite instinctively considered the dank, musty room, the mouldy straw and the space around the fire as their property, and each one of the new prisoners to be an unwelcome and annoying intruder. The new arrivals for their part clearly perceived the cold hostility of their predecessors, senseless as it was in such mortal circumstances, and then – surprisingly – they exchanged no greetings or words with those who would share their fate, did not demand a place at the table or on the straw, but just sullenly and wordlessly pressed into one of the corners. And the cruel silence that already reigned under the vaults weighed even more heavily because of the tension of this senseless atmosphere of challenge.

Then a cry rang out that was all the more striking in this silence, a strong, clear, almost trembling cry sounding as if it came from another world, that irresistibly tore even the most indifferent from their lethargy and depression. A young woman who had just arrived with the others had suddenly and tremblingly sprung up in a bound with arms outspread like one about to fall down, and was vibrantly crying out “Robert, Robert!” towards a young man who had been standing apart from the others leaning on the barred window, and who now was rushing towards her. And already like two flames of a single fire these two young people had thrown body on body and mouth on mouth with such burning intensity that the tears already streaming down their faces flowed onto the other’s cheeks and their sobs sounded as if they were bursting from a single throat. When they released each other for an instant, incredulous at being reunited and amazed by it, in the next instant they pressed themselves together again in a new embrace as tightly glued to each other as possible. They cried and sobbed and talked and shouted in one breath, all alone together in the bottomless depth of their feelings and completely unconscious of the others, who, astonished and intrigued, gathered uncertainly closer around the couple.

The young woman had known Robert de L..., the son of a senior magistrate, since her childhood and had been engaged to him for several months. The banns had already been proclaimed in the church, and their wedding had been planned just on that terrible day when the troops of the Convention had invaded the city, obliging her fiancé, who had fought with “Percy’s Army” against the Republic, to accompany the royalist general in his desperate break-through. For weeks there had been no news of him and she had already begun to hope that he had been able to escape over the Swiss border, when suddenly a city scribe told her that informers had discovered his hiding-place in a farm and that he had been brought before a revolutionary tribunal the day before. As soon as the plucky young woman learned of the imprisonment and certain condemnation of her fiancé, with that magical and inexplicable energy that nature has endowed women in the moment of their greatest danger, she achieved the impossible and managed to gain access to the inaccessible deputy of the Republic in person to beg for grace for her fiancé. Collot d’Herbois, at whose feet she had thrown herself, had sharply rejected her, for he had no pity for traitors. At that she hurried over to Fouché, who was no less harsh than the other but cleverer in his manner, and who resisted the emotion that the sight of this despairing young woman aroused in him by lying, telling her that he would willingly intercede in favour of her fiancé, but that he saw – and the adroit manipulator glanced vaguely through his eyepiece at whatever paper on his desk – that already that same morning Robert L... had been shot by a firing squad on the Plains of Brotteaux. The crafty deception of the young woman was completely successful: she was immediately convinced of the death of her fiancé. But instead of giving herself over to an innocuous womanly mourning, indifferent to her now-meaningless life she tore the revolutionary emblem from her hair, stamped on it with her feet, shouted in a resounding voice that could be heard throughout all the open doors that Fouché and all his men who had rapidly come to the scene were miserable bloodsuckers, hangmen and cowardly criminals. And as she was being seized by the soldiers and taken out of the room she could already hear how Fouché was dictating her sentence to the pock-marked secretary.

All this she had no longer experienced as something real and essential, the impassioned young woman explained almost gaily to those around her, but, on the contrary, an onrushing feeling of liberation had taken hold of her at the thought of quickly following in the footsteps of her executed fiancé. During her interrogation she hadn’t replied to any of the questions, she was so strongly rejoicing at the approaching end, and she hadn’t once looked up when she had been led into this prison with the group of late arrivals. For what could interest her any more in this world now that she knew her beloved to be dead, and that she herself was soon going to be blissfully near him in death. So she had just installed herself in a corner without paying attention to anyone until her glance, scarcely accustomed to the gloom, had been struck by the attitude of a young man leaning thoughtfully against the window with a dreamy kind of look, most astonishingly similar to the manner of her beloved. Although she had strictly forbidden herself to harbour any such senseless, fallacious hopes, she nevertheless stood up in a bound. And almost simultaneously he had entered the circle of light of the candle. But she couldn’t understand, she added, still under the shock, how she hadn’t died in that shattering moment of surprise, for she had clearly felt her heart springing like a living thing from her breast as she uttered the piercing cry that was still echoing in the room when she had suddenly seen him, whom she had long given up for dead, alive there before her.

While she was recounting this all in a rush her hand did not heave her loved one for an instant. Steadfastly, as if she were still uncertain of his presence, she continually pressed herself back into his embrace, and the moving sight of this juvenile intensity shook their fellow prisoners in a quite wonderful way. Although they had felt lethargic, tired and indifferent until then, incapable of any emotion, they all crowded now around the miraculously reunited couple with passionate animation. Everyone forgot their own fate in face of this extraordinary event, everyone gave in to the impulsive urge to express a word of solidarity or encouragement or even pity to them, but in a kind of onrushing pride the fiery young woman rejected every expression of regret. No, she was happy, unreservedly happy now that she knew that she would die at the same time as her beloved, and that neither would have to mourn the other. And only one thing diminished her happiness: that she still bore another name and could not appear before God with him as his betrothed wife.

She had said that quite guilelessly, without any particular intention, and she was so intent on pressing herself to her lover that she already had almost forgotten her words; so didn’t notice that a comrade-in-arms of Robert, deeply moved by her remark, had for the moment gone aside and begun to whisper softly to an older man. The whispered words seemed to greatly affect the other man, for he quickly gathered himself up and went over to the couple. He told them that in spite of his peasant clothes he was in fact a refractory priest [4] from Toulon, and that he had been arrested following a denunciation. But although he was now without his priestly gown, he felt quite undiminished in his religious prerogatives and in his powers as a priest. And as the banns had been published for the couple long beforehand, and that on the other hand their condemnation would allow no postponement, he would therefore willingly undertake to consecrate their declared desire and join them in holy matrimony before the universal God, with their fellow companions here as witnesses.

Astonished by this renewed and unhoped-for fulfilment of her dreams, the young woman glanced questioningly at her fiancé. He replied with a piercing glance. The young woman then kneeled down on the hard tiles, kissed the hand of the priest and asked him to perform the marriage even in this unworthy space, for she felt herself filled with pure sensations and penetrated with the holiness of the occasion. The others, deeply shaken by the realisation that this musty room of death would for a time become a church, were instinctively moved by the emotion of the bride and hid their feelings with various hasty activities. The men put the few chairs that there were in a row and installed the wax candles around an iron crucifix so that the table was like an alter; the women rapidly gathered up the few flowers that pitying hands had given them on their way there into a small wreath, that they placed on the head of the bride; while the priest had gone into the entrance-way with the bride and groom and had confessed first him and then her; and as the couple approached the improvised altar there was such a complete and surprising silence for several minutes that the soldier on guard outside, suspecting something suspicious, opened the door and came in. When he perceived the unusual proceeding, his dark peasant face instinctively became serious and respectful. He stood immobile at the door, and remained there as a silent witness throughout the unusual wedding ceremony.

The priest advanced to the table and explained in a few words that there was a church and an altar everywhere where people wanted to be joined in humility to God. Then he kneeled down and all present kneeled down with him; it was so still that none of the little flames flickered. In the silence the priest asked if the two wanted to join together in life and in death. With a firm voice they answered: “In life and in death”, and that word “death” – even until then charged with terror – rang throughout the silent room brightly and clearly and no longer trembling with notions of fear.
Then the priest joined their hands together and pronounced the binding words: »Ego auctoritate sanctae matris Ecclesiae qua fungor conjungo vos in matrimoniam in nomine Patris et Filii Spiritus sancti.« [5]

With that the ceremony was over. The newlyweds kissed the hand of the priest and all of the other prisoners pushed forward to say a few heartfelt words to them. No one in that moment thought of death, and those who had been dreading it no longer felt its horror.

In the meantime the friend, who had served as witness to the marriage, had been softly whispering with some of the others, and soon a certain activity was seen to be underway. Men were taking the bales of straw out of the little adjoining room, and the newlyweds, quite overwhelmed by the dream-like events, had still not noticed these preparations when the friend came over to them with a smile and told them that he and the other prisoners would gladly have offered a gift to the couple on their wedding day, but what earthly gift could be of value to those whose lives were about to be taken away from them? So they wanted to offer them the only thing that could rejoice the hearts of newlyweds and that would be precious to them: the isolated peacefulness of their marriage night and their last night, and they all preferred to be somewhat more crowded in the main room so that the couple could retire together to the outer room that now was entirely theirs. “Make use of these final hours”, he added, “not a breath of life will be granted us any more, and whoever is still granted love in such moments should enjoy it to the full.”

The young woman blushed to the roots of her hair, but her husband looked frankly into the eyes of the friend and firmly shook his brotherly hand. They did not speak a word, and only looked at one another. And so, without any spoken word of command, the men grouped themselves around the groom and the women around the bride and accompanied them with uplifted candles into the chamber that had been borrowed from death, unknowingly rediscovering the original wedding custom in the depths of their impulse of solidarity.

Then they softly closed the door behind the married couple, and no one dared to utter an unbecoming remark or pleasantry about this marital intimacy so close by; for a strange, solemn emotion had quietly deployed its wings over them all, because, powerless in face of their destiny, they had nevertheless been able to grant to others a handful of happiness. And secretly everyone was thankful for the beneficial distraction from their own unavoidable fate. So the condemned lay there dispersed in the darkness on their bales of straw until early morning, awake or dreaming, and only rarely did a few sighs echo throughout the crowded space.

When the soldiers arrived the next morning to take the eighty-four condemned men and women to the execution ground, they found everyone already awake and fully prepared. Only in the adjoining room, where the married couple were lingering, was everything still: even the harsh echos of the rifle butts had not awoken the tired couple. The best man quietly hurried in so that it wouldn’t be the executioner who would awaken them. They were still locked in deep embrace, her hand negligently under her husband’s arched neck as if forgotten there; even in the soft torpor of sleep their relaxed faces glowed so blissfully that it was hard for the companion to disturb them. But he dared not linger and woke the husband first with an urgent appeal, who, glancing dizzily up, understood the situation in an instant and tenderly lifted his wife up from her resting place. She looked up, childishly shaken by being so rapidly brought back to the icy reality. Then she said to him with a smile: “I am ready.”

Everyone instinctively made place for them as they came in hand in hand, and so, spontaneously, the newlyweds opened the death march of the condemned prisoners. Although already used to the daily spectacle of those sad columns, the onlookers this time observed the unusual convoy with astonishment, for from the two who led the whole group, the young officer and the woman adorned with her bridal wreath, there shone such an unusual gayness and an almost blissful sureness that even hardened souls felt respect for some special secret. And the other prisoners did not tramp along with the usual hesitant pace of the condemned, but were instead all looking fixedly at the couple whose dreams had been so unexpectedly fulfilled three times; they were staring intensely with a desperately firm conviction that to these two lucky beings once again a miracle would surely come to pass and save them from a certain death.

But while life likes the wonderful it is sparing with true miracles: there only came to pass what happened every day then in Lyon. The column was taken over the bridge onto the marshy plain of Brotteaux where twelve infantry squads awaited them – three muskets for each person. They were placed in line: a single salvo brought them all down. Then the soldiers threw the still-bleeding corpses into the Rhône, whose rapid current swallowed up indifferently the faces and the destinies of these anonymous people. Only the marriage wreath, that had separated from the head of the sinking woman, floated aimlessly and bizarrely for a while on the waves further downriver. Finally it too disappeared and with it for a long time the memory of those who has been rescued on the brink of death for a memorable night of love.


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TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

Footnotes

[1these stories have been translated from the original German specially for this site.

[2Herostratus was a celebrated arsonist of antiquity who set fire to the temple of Artemis in Ephesus in the 4th-century B.C.

[3“mitrailleur de Lyon” = the gunner of Lyon.

[4refractory priest: a member of the clergy of the Catholic Church who refused to acknowledge the French government as supreme authority of the Church in France during the French Revolution.

[5Ego auctoritate sanctae matris Ecclesiae qua fungor conjungo vos in matrimoniam in nomine Patris et Filii Spiritus sancti.: "I join you in marriage by the Holy Mother Church, in the name of the Holy Father and the Son.".