THE GRAY NUN
By Nataly Von Eschstruth
Translated from the German by Lionel Strachey
When I was a young man I once made a foreign journey, betaking myself to
the royal court of X. on affairs of state. In those days politics would
take strange turns, not of unmixed delight, and so it happened that my
mission was prolonged well into the winter, and kept me at X. until the
carnival season. But at this I did not repine, for to pass a winter in a
beautiful climate and amid the fascinating society of a court seemed a
welcome change to my enthusiastic, pleasure-loving young soul.
The reigning sovereign had a predilection for masked balls,—a
traditionally favorite amusement at the palace, I was told—and
accordingly several fancy dress festivities were enacted on the royal
premises during the carnival. The first I was unable to participate in
because of an inflamed eye, and therefore awaited the second with all the
In the becoming costume of a Prussian officer in the army of Frederick the
Great, and with the agreeable sensation of being specially well disguised
beneath my mask and safe from recognition, I mingled in the gay throng of
the dancers and enjoyed to the full the charm of the brilliant and
delicious event. An exquisitely graceful little water-nix had conquered my
heart. The champagne was bubbling in my blood, and in wild spirits I was
pursuing the fleeing Undine into an adjacent apartment.
Suddenly I stopped as though spellbound, and found myself staring into a
pair of dark eyes, black as night, which were rigidly fixed upon me.
Standing aloof, in a corner of the room, I saw a nun. Her long gray
garment reached to the ground, and lay about her very feet in folds like a
train. Her arms hung straight down, the hands being concealed in the loose
sleeves. White linen bands covered her head and chin, and rendered even
her mouth invisible, while her forehead and the upper part of her face
were protected by a black velvet mask. And the blackness of those eyes
that penetrated me was so intense that scarcely were any whites
An indescribable emotion ran over me as I stood under the ban of an evil
power, as it were, returning the look of that strange figure. I had
forgotten Undine. Drawn by some invisible force, I approached the nun with
"Why, fair mask," I accosted her with a bold laugh, "are you alone? Surely
you know that for dancing and love two are needed!"
Briefly, like a Chinese idol, she nodded her head in assent; a thrill
seemed to pass over her wonderfully slender shape; yet she did not budge.
I became more venturesome from a sudden feeling as of fire rushing through
"You may be vowed to seclusion, beautiful bride of Heaven, but to-day the
convent walls have released you, to-day you are of the world and the
flesh, to-day you are mine!"
Thus I cried aloud, forgetting in my excitement that I was in a country
where my mother tongue was only spoken and understood at the German
In a moment it occurred to me: Did the mask know German?
To my astonishment, she gave an immediate sign of intelligence by gliding,
silently as a shadow, another step in my direction, and her biasing eyes
appeared to kindle with merriment. Had she a veil over her eyes? It almost
looked so and this extraordinary measure of precaution challenged me the
more strongly to overcome her reluctance to being known.
"Do you understand me?" I asked.
She nodded in the same brief, jerky manner as before.
"Do you know me?"
Similarly she answered by negative motions of the head. I stepped up close
to her with the question:
"But will you not know me and love me? Come into my arms, and let us
Then something happened that at the moment I found surprising and
extremely startling, yet which I took for a mere carnival freak, while
later on I could scarce review the occurrence with any degree of
The nun threw her arms about me abruptly and almost desperately, and
whirled me into a frenzied dance. I felt no body between my arms, and did
not hear the rustle of her dress; I only saw those enigmatic dark eyes,
which glowed near, very near, my own. And in mad career, regardless of the
musical time or of the tune played, my curious partner tore around the
room with me faster and faster, and with ever increasing fury. Her arms
gripped me tighter and tighter and I was threatened with complete loss of
breath in the wild race. Of a sudden I received a violent blow, resembling
an electric shock, from each of her hands on my shoulders, felt myself all
at once liberated, and staggered faint against a pyramid of plants.
Boisterous laughter sounded on my ear; some other masks had surrounded and
seized me, exclaiming:
"Look at the fine gentleman! He is out of his mind, dancing about the room
like a madman, quite alone!"
I opened my eyes and looked all around. What had become of my partner?
Not a sign of her was to be seen, although this other room was likewise
very large, just then not well filled with people.
"Have I been dancing alone?" I gasped, tearing the mask off my burning
"Quite alone! Did you imagine it was with your sweetheart?" was the
mocking, noisy reply.
I was deeply annoyed. "Nonsense!" I cried. "You are all in the conspiracy!
Where has the nun gone? It was no lady at all, it was a man in disguise!"
They laughed still more, and some whispered behind fans that I must be
Strange sensations invaded me. Had a joke been played at my expense? Had a
member of the German legation dressed in female clothes, and in the height
of his whimsical caprice danced with me in that insane fashion? Were the
guests in the secret, and were they amusing themselves—as the
freedom of the carnival permitted—with teasing a foreigner? Yet
surely the mysterious nun must be discoverable. My knees were trembling
from a weakness I was unable to account for, but I collected myself, and
while various thoughts coursed through my brain for a solution of this
carnival prank, I hastened with feverish speed through rooms and galleries
in quest of the nun. But in vain. I espied neither herself, nor met anyone
who had seen her. The lackeys and doorkeepers assured me in perfect good
faith that they had seen no nun of any sort.
"The costume is one of which His Majesty does not approve," I was informed
in the cloak-room. "It is considered irreverent to appear at balls here in
the spiritual garb of a nun or a monk, and therefore it is not done. It
would certainly have been observed by us had any lady or gentleman
transgressed against the prevailing usage."
"Then perhaps I may have mistaken for a nun some other mask, who intended
in her gray suit to represent Twilight or Care," I excused myself
hesitatingly, though I had an accurate eye for dresses, and could have
registered a solemn oath that the mysterious unknown was even wearing
especially authentic claustral attire. No one, however, could by any
effort remember having noticed a costume anything like that described by
"Are there any secret passages to any of the rooms and galleries which are
the scene of tonight's festivities?" I asked a doorkeeper. He looked at me
in surprise, and answered:
"All ways of communication were opened today because of the crowd of
guests, but for safety's sake guarded and watched more carefully than
usual. Only the tapestried corridor running the length of the great
colonnade to the royal apartments was left unguarded, since in that place
there is no possibility of improper intrusion."
A new idea flashed across me. The spot on which I had first set eyes on my
nun was at the entrance to that corridor. Might not a member of the royal
family have elected to make me, as a novice in this foreign court society,
the subject of a merry jest? No doubt the nun was a man in disguise, and
the young princes and dukes were probably capable of pouncing on the
victim and dancing him to death.
My confusion was perhaps very diverting, and the secrecy of the few
spectators of the joke, who were, of course, initiated, was quite
They asserted not having seen a nun at all, and laughed at me for having
rushed round the room alone, like a lunatic, Obviously there was no
further room for doubt, this explanation and no other was valid. Why had I
not thought of this before!
So I joined in the hilarity of the others and made the best of my
discomfiture. In any case, the manner in which my partner had dismissed me
betrayed a pair of powerful masculine fists! My shoulders, on which she
had come down so vigorously ached as if they were broken, and I was still
unable to conquer entirely a peculiar sensation of uneasiness. But while I
was pursuing my investigations the clock struck twelve, the company
unmasked, and gaily flocked toward the Supper rooms. I felt particularly
entitled to refreshments, and in the course of my indulgence in the good
things of my selection, my faintness—which was more astonishing to
my robust, muscular young self than any carnival joke in the world could
have been—passed off completely. I was as happy and lively as
before, and enjoyed the remainder of the ball as much as I had the
beginning. I tried to dismiss the episode from my mind. For a few days I
felt a dull pain in my shoulders, which annoyed me at night also, and
disturbed my sleep. The image of the nun haunted me, and the sombre,
penetrating eyes were present to me in my very dreams. This vexed me, and
I mentally abused the royal gentleman in every key who had pushed his joke
rather too far.
A week passed, and the court chamberlain issued invitations for the third
masked ball at the palace. I purchased a sailor's dress, and on the
evening of the ball tripped up the marble stairs in the best of spirits.
It had in the meanwhile occurred to me that I had perhaps imbibed too
much, and that the prince in nun's clothing had perhaps observed my
condition, and made me his victim for that reason. But I rejected that
proposition. In the first place, I had not taken much to drink; certainly
two or three glasses of champagne and lemonade were not worth mentioning
when I remembered what quantities of alcohol I had frequently absorbed in
my university days in Germany. I was a brave boon companion, and capable
of consuming a great deal. So how should a few paltry little glasses make
me so unsteady on my feet as to collapse in dancing a fast gallop? Absurd!
I was sure enough of myself, and sufficiently well brought up in social
customs, to know how much one may drink at a court ball. No—I was
convinced that I had not been intoxicated, but on this occasion I resolved
to exercise special caution, and to be strictly temperate, in the event of
the disguised perpetrator of pranks again attempting to make the German
stranger the butt of his impudence. This time he should meet his match; I
would keep my head clear and my feet steady enough to venture a dance with
him. The constantly suspicious attitude of my mind, to be sure, interfered
with my pleasure very considerably. I was in a too observant mood to float
on the topmost wave of enjoyment, and besides an extraordinary disquietude
had seized upon me, a contraction about the heart that was quite new to
me, such as sensitive people undergo before a storm or in anticipation of
momentous changes of fortune. I wandered about restlessly. Numerous though
the merry masks that flitted around me, that nun's indescribable black
eyes did not appear, and no effort was made to involve me again as the
hero of another frolic. Time was dragging heavily. I glanced at my watch,
and wished the supper hour might be near. The finger only pointed to half
past eleven, so that I must still possess my soul in patience for half an
hour. It was a lovely, mild, moonlight night; the doors to the tapestried
passage and the colonnade had been thrown open, and I concluded to take a
breath of the fragrant air and a rapid view of the illuminated town in its
festive brilliancy of a carnival night.
A female pierrot dances past me with Don Juan, and, with a laugh, throws a
handful of confetti in my face. I retaliate—a few phrases are
exchanged—I look after her for a moment—and then turn to the
entrance of the corridor, to get out into the colonnade.
I am rooted to the ground!
Standing aside in a corner, on the very same spot as before, is my nun,
staring at me with the same unfathomable eyes as a week ago!
Where had she come from?
Out of the ground? Or had she slipped in through the door during my banter
with the pierrot?
She had come through the door, of course.
I am utterly amazed. The same costume. The same joke. How clumsy of the
prince to repeat himself, I am inclined to ignore the impertinent young
gentleman, and pass him proudly by—yet—strange—again I
am attracted irresistibly, as by a supernatural power, held by those black
orbs. I am quite certain of my wits this time: the dress is really the
forbidden costume of a nun, and, so far as I can judge, exact in every
particular. On her breast hangs a large cross, which is especially
conspicuous. It is of dull gold, with emeralds and pearls inlaid, of
peculiar shape, and certainly antique. The pious nun seems to have regaled
herself with excessive haste at some sideboard, since the white collar and
the front of the gray bodice show oblong dark stains, as though some
beverage had been spilt.
"Well, fair mask," finally remark in a mocking tone, although my heart is
beating furiously, "you have been waiting for me here, I presume?"
She nods slowly and solemnly.
"Do you imagine, by chance, that I wish to dance another hurricane with
Again she assents, but more emphatically.
"Then," say I, ironically, "see where you can find a new blockhead, my
muscular fairy! My shoulders are not well yet!"
Her arms move—hands there are none visible in the long, roomy
sleeves—they are stretched out to me as if in mute appeal. A cold
shiver runs down my back, I know not why.
"If I dance with you again," I angrily exclaim, "you will not fare quite
so well as last time! I am firmer on my feet to-night than I was last
She presses her arms to her breast, something like a tremor agitates the
gray shape, and her head is slightly raised. Her position and demeanor,
though she utters not a word, denote intense longing.
The blood rushes to my head—I must go a step nearer to her—I
"If I dance with you, it will be only on one condition!"
With a profound sigh her bosom heaves, her arms fall to her side, her body
is humbly bent forward as if in complete surrender, and as if to say: Ask
what you will!
"My condition is that you afterward reveal yourself."
She nods stiffly, like a marionette.
"Swear to it!"
She raises her arm for the oath, but the gray folds still conceal her
"Woe betide you if you deceive me!"
She shakes her head, and repeats the passionate gesture of entreaty. Her
slender form trembles with feverish impatience, and the wonderful eyes
seem to plead, in extreme urgency: Come quickly!
I put out my arms—
Once more does the terrible woman rush at me, once more am I held in that
mad embrace, once more—on the wings of the wind—do we dash
round the room! And once more are all my senses lost in the fiendish
I attempt to struggle, would pit the abounding strength of my youth
against the woman and subdue her. In vain! I can think, I can act, no
longer. My whole being is in a swoon, and I am conscious of nothing but
two icy lips pressed upon mine with a vehemence calculated to draw my very
life out of me.
A shudder seizes me, and the fear of death, and then—again that blow
on my shoulders—
I feel as if a pair of iron clamps had been taken off me and I had been
freed, and I sink down upon a sofa.
A laughing, jeering crowd surrounds me, shouting:
"The sailor is crazy! He has gone out of his mind!"
Have I again been dancing alone in public?
I jump up in a rage, and exclaim, as I toss back my dishevelled hair from
my burning brow:
"Abominable trickery! Let me pass! Let me get my hands on her, and unmask
Something rings on the floor. It has fallen from my hand, hitherto
clenched and just now opened. Triumphantly I snatch it up, exulting:
"Her cross! Ha! that shall be my clue!"
On this occasion, too, no trace of the mysterious nun was to be found. It
was at first superciliously assumed, as before, that I must be drunk or
insane, but my serious mood and energetic investigations soon altered that
notion. I might myself have doubted my mental soundness had it not been
for the cross in my hand, which I at once recognized as being that worn by
the nun, and had not a lackey finally confessed to having beheld the
strange figure. He was coming from the colonnade with a tray of
refreshments when he saw me in conversation with her. The mask had
something familiar about her, he said, but he could not remember where he
had seen her before. He had been a servant in the palace for forty years.
Nobody thought of a spectre; on the other hand extravagant speculations
became rife of a conspirator being at work. It was rumored the king had
originally intended to wear a sailor costume.
Of course, it was him the uncanny visitor had designs upon. In view of the
fact that the political horizon was very dark and clouded at that time,
the conjecture was perhaps not altogether phantastical, and for this
reason the report quickly reached the ears of the king and the royal
family. I was promptly summoned before His Majesty, and it gave me a sort
of revengeful pleasure to relate the incident to that august person. For I
was still fully persuaded that some young member of his family had played
this obnoxious trick upon me.
The king nodded thoughtfully upon my frank declaration that, according to
my researches, the enigmatical female could only have come from the royal
Said his Majesty:
"May I ask you, my dear Baron, to show me the cross you found?"
I put it into his hand.
For a moment the king stared upon it speechless. Then he turned it over,
and ejaculated, roughly almost under the emotion of his violent surprise:
"Great God—why—it is—!"
And he pointed to the small, delicately engraved initials, surmounted by a
crown, in the middle of the cross. Very pale and with heaving breast he
"A nun, a gray nun, you say? What would the object of such a joke be? and
how—how should this cross come back among the living? Baron, come
with me, I must request your confidence and secrecy!"
We passed through several rooms, and then arrived at a narrow gallery
whose walls were hung with portraits of royal personages. The king came
abruptly to a halt, and without himself looking up indicated a certain
"Observe that painting! Do you see the same Cross there that you have in
Involuntarily I uttered the loud cry:
"Why, that is she! Holy Heavens! It is my nun!"
"The cross—compare the cross!" urged the king, his slender, white
hand trembling with agitation.
A frosty current ran through my veins as I compared the pictured cross
with that in my companion's hand. It was the same—not a doubt of it—and
the eyes, too, were the same, as also the dress and the whole figure were
unmistakably those of the gray nun I had danced with. Yet in those
conspicuously large, deep black eyes lay not an expression of peacefulness
and mild resignation, but a world of passionate feeling. Having assured
the king of the identity of the cross, and he having informed me that it
was an ancient heirloom of which no duplicate existed, he bade me
accompany him further.
Arrived in the antechamber to his apartments, the king gave an order to
one of the attendants on duty there. He walked up and down the room for a
few moments in visible excitement, and then, stopping before me, and
looking at me searchingly, he asked:
"Have you ever, in the course of your life, met with a manifestation of
I was so bewildered and nervous that I scarcely could remember enough
French to reply:
"May it please your Majesty, I have not."
"Do you believe in the possibility of the dead returning?"
"Not in the sense of their coming as apparitions. I always was, still am,
a skeptic on the point of ghost stories in general, nevertheless I am a
Christian, and I believe and know that we continue to live after death."
The king stared at me mechanically:
"You are a Protestant, and you say you are a skeptic. Curious—only
you saw the apparition—it was revealed to no one else?"
"Then your Majesty is of the opinion that this is actually a case of a
"Certainly. It seems much more plausible than open theft. This very cross
He interrupted his sentence as he turned to the door, through which, with
profound obeisances, entered two ladies in waiting—probably the
queen's. His Majesty addressed one of them in French, no doubt to enable
me to participate in the conversation:
"You were present, Madame M., when Princess A. was laid in her coffin
seventeen years ago?"
A low curtsey was the affirmative reply.
"And you also, Madame U.?"
"I had the honor, your Majesty, of rendering her royal highness the last
"You remember perfectly what dress the deceased was buried in?"
"Quite well, your Majesty. It was the regular dress of the Order of Gray
Sisters, of which her royal highness was a member."
"Do you recollect whether she took any ornaments to her last resting
"Excepting the golden cross which your Majesty hung round her neck on the
day she took the vow, no jewelry was put on the princess. The duchess even
drew the little sapphire ring from her royal highness' finger, to keep it
as a remembrance and wear it herself."
"You are absolutely certain that the cross went into the coffin? You could
swear to it?"
"I could do so with fullest conviction, your Majesty."
"Would you recognize the cross?"
"To be sure I should."
"Is this it?"
"Good Heavens—it is! On the back there ought to be the initials of
her royal highness!"
"Here they are," said the king, reversing the cross. The old woman shrank
"Then, your Majesty, the vault has been broken into!"
"Possibly it has. The matter shall be investigated. I am much obliged to
you, ladies, and earnestly request you will both preserve unconditional
silence as to our present interview."
"Well," said the king to me, after the ladies in waiting had withdrawn,
"how do you account for this cross being here in my hand, considering it
was put into the coffin? You think the vault may have been pillaged? That,
I believe, is out of the question. The object of a carnival freak, which
could have been perpetrated just as easily in any other dress, is far too
slight to make such a horrible offense as the violation of the dead worth
while! But I intend to have the vault examined, and beg, my dear baron,
that you will attend. For the present, good night."
I spent a dreadful night, torturing my sleepless brain for a solution of
the riddle, and being forever haunted by the nun's dark eyes. It was late
when I woke.
Some hours after, the coffin was opened in the presence of the king, whose
surmise proved correct. The bolts on the coffin were intact. The gold
chain was there, safe round the princess' neck. But the cross was gone.
There was not the remotest sign of violence.
How I got out of that vault, I do not know. I remember feeling faint, and
being supported by two court officials. I am unaware of what happened
next. It was the only instance in my life in which my system had so
entirely given way. A serious illness was apprehended, but my strong
constitution won the day. For a long time my mind was in a precarious
When I had recovered, the king sent for me.
"Are you still a skeptic?" he asked in a grave voice.
"No, your Majesty, I am convinced now."
Whereupon the king himself deigned to communicate to me the particulars
relating to the golden cross.
Princess A. was a daughter of one of his cousins, and she was their fifth
child. The duchess, a very pious woman, made a vow before the birth of her
sixth child, that if it was a boy, her youngest daughter should be
dedicated to the service of the church and take the veil. A son was born,
and Princess A. henceforth was educated for the profession of a nun in
becoming retirement and seclusion. Unfortunately, however, the natural
traits of the girl seemed to be entirely in opposition to that reverend
calling. An irrepressible vivacity of spirit, an intense coveting of
worldly joys and pleasures characterized her, and the more she was
separated from the world the more ardent grew her desire to live in it.
Heartrending scenes of resistance and tears were enacted, and the reigning
sovereign felt so much pity for the spirited young creature that he
attempted to save her from her fate of being immured in convent walls by
offering to apply to the pope for a dispensation releasing the mother from
her promise. But the duchess desperately combated this idea. Her wild
laments, that to break her vow would entail her forfeiture of eternal
salvation, her protestations, her tears, her entreaties, at last prevailed
upon the princess to join the Order of the Gray Sisters. For a short space
all seemed to go well. The fervid heart of the royal nun was apparently
beating placidly, in the quiet claustral surroundings. But during the
winter the duchess fell sick, and the young bride of the church was called
to her bedside. Princess A. had remained with her mother for several
weeks, and about that time the carnival season began. Masked balls were
given in the palace, and while the horns and violins were sounding in the
ballroom Princess A. lay on her knees in the throes of dreadful despair,
tearing her hair in furious longing for that lost paradise. She at last
succeeded in bribing a chambermaid to secretly procure her a fancy dress.
If it was to cost her immortal soul, once she would dance and be young and
happy! The plot was betrayed, and the angriest reproaches were poured out
by her parents upon the perjured, rebellious nun! Princess A. was locked
up, and was to be removed to the convent the next day. However, as the
festivities in the palace were reaching their height that night, the
unhappy young nun lay expiring in her room. She had taken poison, although
the report was spread in the capital that failure of the heart had caused
her death. How she came into possession of the poison no one ever
discovered. While she was writhing in terrible agony her half-crazed
mother put a cup of milk to her lips as an antidote. She dashed it
passionately aside and the spilt milk left stains on her dress.
How hard it was to die! Again and again she tore her black hair. Again and
again she uttered the bitterest imprecations and the fiercest cries for a
taste of youth and happiness. At length she stood up, straining her ears
for the music in the ballroom.
And then she screamed aloud:
"Oh, I must dance once! I must kiss once! Let me be happy once! I cannot
die before I dance! Let me go—let me dance—let me—"
She drew herself up to her full height, her eyes glowed like live coals,
she took a few steps towards the door—
"I must dance—let me dance!" she gasped, and fell stiffly forward on