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The Gray Nun   By: (1860-1939)

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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 keener anticipation.

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 discernible.

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 mechanical footstep.

"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 my veins.

"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 legation.

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 dance!"

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 clearness.

The nun threw her arms about me abruptly and almost desperately, and whirled me into a frenzied dance... Continue reading book >>

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