Franz and Lelio were discussing the mysteries of life. They agreed that real life was often more wonderful than fiction. It was suggested that the ordinary affairs of daily life had a mysteriously wonderful aspect that only a select few could comprehend. Such people had a sort of sixth sense, something like the sixth sense which the scientist Spalanzani had discovered in bats. They thought that their friend Theodore, who happened to be present, was such a person.
This prompted Theodore to tell his friends about an adventure that he had experienced. However, he said that the mysteries he perceived were actually strange rather than wonderful. Or they could be described as an eerie mixture of the strange and the wonderful.
Theodore had spent the previous summer in a city, which Hoffmann cryptically calls ***n. He liked to walk alone through the streets of the city. He was especially drawn to a certain alley where he could see some splendid houses.
One day, while spending time in this alley, he happened to notice a house that seemed out of place. It was a small building situated between two tall structures. The windows on the ground floor were walled up, and the second floor windows were draped. The house seemed deserted. Theodore was so intrigued that he frequently came and gazed at it.
One day, as he was gazing at the house, he met a man whom Hoffmann calls Count P. Theodore told the count of the strange impression that this desolate house made on him. In reply, the count told him that the house was the bakery of a pastry cook whose shop was next to it. The lower windows were walled up because the ground floor was the place where the pastry was baked. Since the pastry was stored in the upper story, the windows were supplied with curtains to keep out the sunlight and vermin.
This prosaic explanation ought to have put an end to the poetic thoughts that the desolate building inspired in him. However, as he continued to contemplate the building, Theodore could not get used to the idea that it was nothing but a bakery. In his more rational moments, he chided himself for turning an ordinary building into something wonderful.
Since the building never changed its appearance, he got used to it and almost abandoned his fanciful notions. Then one day he saw the curtain of an upper window move. A well-formed hand and arm of a woman emerged into view. A sparkling diamond was on her little finger, and her arm was adorned with a rich band. She set a strangely formed crystal flask on the window sill and disappeared. This sight caused electrical warmth to pervade Theodore’s inmost being.
However, his more rational side told him that this must have been a prosaic occurrence. The wife of the pastry cook must have emptied a flask of rose water and put it on the windowsill.
To determine whether his romantic thoughts had any basis in fact, he entered the pastry shop. He told the pastry cook that using the adjacent building as his bakery was a very suitable arrangement. In reply, the pastry cook informed Theodore that the building did not belong to them. He had tried to buy it but did not succeed. He said that the house belonged to the Countess of S., who had not been in town for a long time.
The pastry cook claimed that only a dog and an old man lived in the desolate house. The old man was a steward who managed the house for the Countess of S. It was generally believed that the house was haunted, and the pastry cook said that strange noises sometimes emanated from that house. On one occasion, he heard a lady’s voice sing a marvelous song. He also said that dangerous smoke sometimes emanated from an iron pipe that jutted out of the side of the building.
As they were conversing, the old steward entered the store and bought some goodies. He muttered something about Satan smearing the mouth of his bride with sweets. His black dog followed him into the store.
Theodore now knew that the story told by Count P. was false. He also concluded that the old steward was lying when he claimed that he lived alone, since the pastry cook had heard a woman sing in the house and since he himself had seen a woman’s arm in the window.
Theodore let his imagination run wild. He imagined that a beautiful maiden was being held captive by the steward. Perhaps the steward was a warlock who had enchanted her in some way. He even saw the maiden’s face in a dream or vision when he went to bed that night.
One day, one of the upper story windows was open. Looking out the window was the very same face that he had seen in his dream. Her face had a static expression. He might have concluded that she was a painted picture if he had not seen her hands and arms move once in a while.
As Theodore was gazing at her, an ambulatory salesman started pestering him. Theodore could not get rid of him, so he eventually bought a little mirror. With this mirror, he looked at the reflection of the girl. He could thus view her without attracting attention.
Looking in the mirror began to affect his mind. As a child, his nurse had filled his head with superstitions about gazing at mirrors. At one point, he thought he saw some atrociously glowing eyes staring at him from the mirror.
Eventually an old man commented on Theodore’s mirror and asked why he was looking at it so attentively. When Theodore explained that he was looking at the beautiful girl in the window of the desolate house, the old man said that it was only a portrait. He claimed that mirrors could create deceptive illusions and added that when he was young, he might also have been inclined to create a real girl out of a painting.
Theodore was disgusted with himself. He decided to give up thinking about the mysterious house and even avoided the alley where it was located. Although the thought of the maiden and the desolate house occasionally impinged upon his mind like a stroke of lightning, these were only passing sensations.
This relatively tranquil existence suddenly came to an end. Theodore had devoted the mirror that he had purchased to ordinary domestic use. One day he was moistening the mirror with his breath so that he could polish it. As the mist covered the mirror, he saw the face of the maiden that he had seen in the window and previously in his nocturnal vision. From then on, he became sick with love. He neglected his studies and everything else. Again and again he breathed on the mirror. Sometimes the desired face appeared; sometimes it did not. When he could not see her image in the mirror, he ran to the desolate house like a madman, but he saw nothing but its façade. The tension began to affect him physically.
One day, a friend gave him a book on mental derangements. When he read about fixed delusions, he recognized his own condition. Theodore was afraid that insanity threatened him. He grabbed his little mirror and visited Doctor K., who was famous for his successful work with insane people.
To treat Theodore, the doctor took away the mirror. He told him to avoid the alley and do some work that kept his mind busy. He should start working early in the morning and continue until he was tired. Then, after taking a vigorous walk, he should spend time with his friends. He should eat wholesome foods and drink strong wine. The purpose of this regimen was to obliterate his fixe idée, to get his mind on other things, and to strengthen his body.
Before Theodore left, the doctor asked Theodore to conjure up the image in the mirror. He did so twice. The first time the doctor did not see anything. On the second attempt, the doctor touched Theodore’s vertebrae as he conjured up the image. When the doctor saw what had happened, he became pale and put the mirror in his desk.
Although Theodore faithfully followed the doctor’s instructions, he still suffered psychosomatic attacks, especially at twelve noon and at midnight.
One evening, friends of Theodore were discussing the possibility of forces that produced physical effects at a distance. The discussion started with magnetism but soon included witchcraft and other factors. Theodore asked if hostile demons could produce ruinous effects on a person. A medical student rejected the idea of absolute demonic hegemony over a person, but he claimed that a personal weakness may expose a person to demonic influence. An elderly gentleman added that only sin makes a person subject to demonic influence, especially sins connected with love. To illustrate his point, he cited an example in which a person suffered an inexplicable death after indulging in an illicit love affair.
During the Napoleonic invasion of Germany, an officer had been quartered in his house. The officer was seriously sick, and a doctor was summoned. Since nothing else seemed to help, the doctor tried to treat him with magnetism. This brought about a temporary improvement in his condition. However, the administration of this treatment produced unbearable effects on the doctor himself, so he had to discontinue it. The patient told the doctor that he saw the image of a girl that he had known in Pisa during the treatment.
A few days later, the soldiers were about to leave town. The officer packed his belongings and was ready to leave, but he suddenly fell down dead. A few days later, the elderly gentlemen received a letter addressed to the dead officer, and he decided to open it. Its brief message informed the officer that Antonia had died. She had fallen down dead while embracing the deceptive picture of the officer. The elderly gentleman noticed that Antonia had died at the same moment that the death of the officer had occurred.
Theodore saw a similarity between the officer’s experiences and his own. He immediately left the group and ran to the desolate house. He forced his way inside and suddenly found himself in a hazy hall elegantly furnished and lighted with many candles. He heard a woman’s voice saying: “Welcome, sweet bridegroom. The day has come. The wedding is near.” At that moment, he saw a richly-clad young woman emerging from the mist. However, as she approached, he could see her better. He then realized that she was an old woman with an atrociously ugly face. However, it seemed to him that her ugly face was a gauze mask that concealed beauty beneath it.
As Theodore stood there petrified, the steward entered with a whip and threatened the old lady. Theodore made a feeble effort to intervene, but the house manager pushed him away, saying: “The old Satan would have murdered you if I had not intervened.”
Theodore rushed out of the hall, but he could not find the door of the house and ended up in the steward’s bedroom. He heard the crack of the whip and the screams of the woman.
The house steward came and begged him not to tell anyone what he had witnessed. The steward was afraid that he would lose his job if his treatment of the woman became known. He then led Theodore outside the house.
This experience cured him of his obsession with the house and with the maiden that he had seen in the mirror. He now knew that the house was inhabited by an insane aristocratic lady who was under the care of a tyrannical steward.
On a later date, Theodore found himself in a company of people about to attend a formal feast. Count P. happened to see him and was about to offer him information on the desolate house. However, before the count could speak, the doors of the banquet hall opened and the company began to enter in a formal fashion. Since Theodore wanted to hear what the count had to say, he offered his arm to a young lady who happened to be nearby and entered the hall with her.
To his surprise, he noticed that his lady was the same maiden whom he had seen in the window of the desolate house and also in his mirror. He did not feel the same uncontrollable passion as before. He noticed that she was charming and tender but seemed to be troubled about something. She complained about a migraine headache and felt better when Theodore persuaded her to drink some wine. However, Theodore accidentally struck a glass, and its ringing tone caused the lady to become pale. Theodore was also startled because the ringing tone of the glass resembled the voice of the insane woman in the desolate house.
When Theodore had the opportunity to converse with Count P., the latter explained that the lady was Edwine, the daughter of the Countess of S. That day, both the mother and the daughter had gone to the desolate house and visited the insane woman, who was the sister of the Countess of S. The name of the insane woman was Angelika, the countess of Z. The name of the Countess of S. was Gabriele.
Count P. explained that the steward was deathly sick when the Countess of S. and her daughter Edwine visited them. Since the steward was the only one who could control Angelika when she suffered outbursts of insanity, her sister decided to reveal the secret of the desolate house to Doctor K. so that he could treat Angelika.
Theodore returned to Doctor K. and related all that had transpired since his last visit. He begged the doctor to tell him all that he knew about Angelika. After extracting a promise of confidentiality, the doctor agreed to satisfy his curiosity.
When Angelika was in her thirties, she was still a very beautiful woman. The Count of S. fell in love with her and visited Count Z., her father, to arrange a marriage. However, when he saw Angelika’s younger sister Gabriele, he decided to marry her instead of Angelika.
After this, Angelika avoided the society of her family. She often walked in the neighboring woods.
One day, the hunters of Count Z., with the help of some farmers, captured a band of gypsies. Several robberies and murders had been committed in the general area, and the gypsies were prime suspects.
When the band was escorted to the residence of Count Z., Angelika begged her father to let them go. She said that they were innocent. She said that if a drop of their blood were shed, she would plunge a dagger into her heart. She then fainted.
An old gypsy woman showered Angelika with kisses and told her to wake up. She said that the bridegroom was coming. When the gypsy held a strange viol next to Angelika’s heart, she revived. Angelika immediately led the gypsy woman into the castle.
It was obvious that Angelica and the gypsies were acquainted with one another. Observers had noticed that the gypsy chief had been visiting Angelika in her room at night.
The next day the count said that the gypsies were innocent and let them go. The old gypsy woman did not leave with them.
Before Gabriele’s wedding, Angelica said that she wanted to live alone. She moved to the desolate house, with the consent of her father. Angelika insisted that no one should visit her unless she expressly agreed to the visit. A servant of the Count of S. became her steward, and the old gypsy woman apparently went with her.
The marriage took place, and Gabriele and the Count of S. lived in happy wedlock. Then after about a year, the count became so sick that his life was in danger. The doctors persuaded him to go to Pisa for his health. Gabriele could not go along because she was about to bear a child.
The countess gave birth to a daughter, but the child disappeared shortly afterwards. Then Count Z. wrote to Gabriele, informing her that her husband had died. The count thought that his son-in-law had gone to Pisa, but he had actually gone to the house of Angelika. He had died there from a stroke of nerves. The letter also informed his daughter that Angelika had become insane.
Gabriele hastened to the house of her father. During the night, the old gypsy woman brought a child to her. At first, Gabriele thought that it was her lost daughter. As soon as Gabriele took the baby, the gypsy woman then fell down dead.
A visit was paid to Angelika to see whether she could clear up the mystery concerning the child. While she was rational, she confessed that she and the Count of S. had indulged in an illicit affair and the child was the fruit of their union. Some words that Angelika spoke in her less lucid moments implied that Gabriele’s own child was dead and buried.
Count Z. wanted to take Angelika to his own residence, but Angelica begged to be allowed to stay in the desolate house till she died. The count was forced to agree. Her care was entrusted to the steward. Her presence in the house was to be kept a secret.
The recent visit of Gabriele and her (apparently adopted) daughter was occasioned by the death of Count Z. During the visit, the countess apparently witnessed the cruelty of the steward and decided to take Angelika out of his hands.
The smoky mist that Theodore had noticed when he was in the desolate house was explained as follows. Once when the steward was curbing her madness with cruelty, Angelika claimed that she could make gold. So the steward brought her all the equipment with which alchemists generally attempted this feat. These alchemical operations produced a lot of smoke.
Doctor K. also confided that he himself had seen the girl’s image in the mirror when he put himself into magnetic rapport with Theodore. Like Theodore, Doctor K. recognized that the girl in the mirror was the daughter of the Countess of S., whom he calls Edmonde instead of Edwine for some strange reason.
Even after the doctor had explained the mystery of the desolate house, Theodore continued to be troubled by an oppressive feeling. One day, when this weight was suddenly lifted from his shoulders and a feeling of wellbeing pervaded his body, he figured that Angelika must have died at that moment.
As the three friends went their separate ways, Franz shook the hand of Theodore and said: “Good night, you Spalanzani bat.”
Was Angelika lying when she claimed that the father of her child was the Count of S.? What does Hoffmann want us to believe? I think that Hoffmann wants to mystify us. He throws out several hints that the leader of the gypsy band might be the father. This chief visited her room at night. The old gypsy woman continued to associate herself with Angelica. Angelica’s desire to live alone may have been motivated by the impending birth of a child.
Moreover, the steward called Angelika an old Satan who lured Theodore into the house so that she could kill him. Did she previously lure someone into the house and cause his death? The Count of S. may have been drawn to the desolate house by a mystical process similar to that which later caused Theodore to enter the house. What he saw and heard there may have caused his nervous stroke. This may be the reason why the steward warned Theodore that his life was in danger.
Moreover, although Hoffmann does not say that the gypsy woman or her friends stole the daughter of Gabriele, the deranged words of Angelica lend themselves to this interpretation. If this happened, what was their motive?
Because of her madness, Angelica would not have been able to care for her child. Perhaps the gypsies thought that Gabriele would be more willing to take care of Angelica’s child if she had lost her own. The gypsy chief might have wanted his child to grow up among the nobility. (The death of Gabriele’s child may have been an accident or a lie. I tend to discount the possibility that they killed her.)
Perhaps Angelica’s statement concerning the parenthood of her child is to be taken at face value. However, this does not prevent Hoffmann from indulging in his favorite trick of mystifying his readers.
Project Gutenberg: Nachtstücke by E.T.A. Hoffmann