HORRID MYSTERIES (1797)
PETER WILL (trans.)
Rev. Peter Will was a minister of the German (i.e. Lutheran) Chapel in the Savoy who specialized in translating from the German. His books were published from 1795 through 1811, and include the Gothic novels The Victim of Magical Delusion by Cajetan Tschink and Horrid Mysteries, his most popular work, translated from Karl Grosse’s Der Genius (though some passages may be by Will himself). The former was published by G. Robinson, Mrs Radcliffe’s publishers, and the latter by the Minerva Press. Horrid Mysteries is one of the ‘horrid’ novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey, and in Thomas Love Peacock’s Gothic parody Nightmare Abbey a character modelled on Percy Bysshe Shelly sleeps with a copy of Horrid Mysteries under his pillow. Will also translated several works of German mysticism and works by the Illuminati, a secret society that professed a kind of Satanism. These ‘magico-political’ themes are explored in Horrid Mysteries: the extract describing a descent into the mystic forest may be a dramatized initiation ritual; the often-used word ‘rosy’ may be a coded reference to the Rosicrucians, the secret Society of the Rosy Cross.
(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)
We set out one morning, on horseback, and arrived at the cottage against noon, but it was empty. No vestige of human footsteps could be traced all around. What could that mean? Pedro, who already, on the road, had repented our rash undertaking, made this circumstance a pretext to abandon it entirely; and when I insisted upon the execution of my design, mounted his horse, and left me with visible satisfaction.
A dreadful wind arose with the setting in of night; the trees were violently shaken, and every new gust threatened to overturn the old, decayed cottage where I had taken shelter against the torrents of rain which poured down from the flood-gates of heaven. Having been near an hour in that uncomfortable situation, the intense darkness that involved me seemed to disperse gradually; but the faint glimmer, which now and then trembled through the window, was swallowed up again by black obscurity. My fear made me see every object double; and my imagination was, in these moments of anxiety, dreadfully assailed by the recollection of the adventurous rumours which I had heard related of that forest. My apprehensions were increased by the restlessness of my horse, whom I had tied to a post in the inner part of the cottage; and I may truly say that I never have seen a more dreadful night.
The awful silence which, for some time, had swayed around the cottage, began by degrees to be enlivened; my listening ear, in which the roaring of the storm, and the cracking of the trees, began to resound again, could plainly distinguish whispers, which seemed to proceed from different people. The whispers grew louder and louder; and I could, at length, plainly distinguish a word. I now began to tremble, instead of rejoicing, at being relieved from my horrid solitude by the society of men. The whisperers came, meantime, nearer and nearer; a pale glimmer flashed through the little window; somebody pushed against the unlocked door; it opened, and, to my greatest terror, I saw the old man enter. He had a lighted torch in his hand. As to the rest, he was still the same as when I saw him first; the same awful sternness prevailing in his looks.
‘Is it you, Don Carlos?’ he exclaimed, as soon as he observed me. ‘I heard a horse kick and neigh!’ ‘My horse has not neighed.’ ‘Perhaps you did not regard it. Are you come to redeem your word?’ ‘Yes; I am come for that purpose,’ I replied, rising from my seat. . . . ‘Will you follow me now?’ I consented. The horse was tied faster: he lighted a second torch, which he had under his arm, and gave it me in my hand. The door was then carefully bolted, and we began to push through the overgrown underwood. But no path being to be met with, every step we proceeded was attended with laborious difficulties. I ran against every protending branch that obstructed our passage, lost my hat, and could not get to an open spot that was before us without leaving part of my tattered garments behind. The old man seemed to be used to that difficult way; he improved every advantage, and followed me without receiving the least hurt. We rested a few minutes on that open spot. . . .
‘Let us not tarry long here, Don Carlos,’ he said; and this was the signal for breaking up. We began to proceed: the great extent of the open spot where we were began to grow narrower by degrees; and we were, at length, confined in a rocky passage, which led through wild shrubberies, almost horizontally, into the deep.
I could not help being chilled with a secret horror. The way seemed to lead us into a lonely abyss. All objects around us bore evident marks of a chaotic disorder and of violent devastation; yet we beheld everywhere the wrecks of former grandeur. The destructive hand of nature seemed to have exhausted here all her devastating powers. Enormous rocks, which were already half decayed, opposed a roaring cataract, which concealed its unbridled fury beneath the gloomy darkness of bottomless abysses. Every thing bore the stamp of antiquity. A gray moss mournfully covered the mountains, and the slender shrubs trembled rustling in the flaring light of our torches; the rays of which, reflecting a pallid glimmer upon the darkness of the most distant bushes, along with the trembling shades, alternately raised the mind to the most elevated sentiments, and lulled it again into silent meditation. The change of the light, which sported between the leaves and the deep leafy darkness, every object around appeared to me to be a symbol of my life, in order to conduct me towards a happier futurity. I felt myself, as it were, new created, and dropped the cumbersome covering of time past with enthusiastic boldness.
‘Whither do you lead me, Sennor?’ I exclaimed, at length, involuntarily.
‘Whither a man of boldness and feeling needs not be afraid to go. . . . A confederation of men awaits you. You wish, perhaps, to take a part in the great views which they prosecute; will you be able to submit to a voluntary yoke?’ ‘Yes, I shall; but what recompense may I expect?’ ‘You will be enabled to throw off an involuntary one.’ ‘Is that all?’
‘Carlos, you ask this question too prematurely. You shall one time feel yourself happy. But how can you expect to receive your reward before you have earned it? Purified from our prejudices, united by indissoluble bonds with men of exalted virtue, and of an all-conquering spirit, you will learn to forget the little troubles of life, and be enabled, by the smiling light of truth, cheerfully to bear the burdens of your existence. But, are you unbiassed [sic] by opinion? is your mind unfettered by prejudice? do you think you are already deserving of such a union?’ ‘No, Sennor, and this is it what makes me uneasy. Can you say nothing that could dispel my uneasiness?’ . . . ‘Don’t be afraid, Don Carlos; your merits will not be misconceived. They will expect rather too much than too little of you. Why should you then be afraid? If you should feel yourself undervalued, or deceived in your hopes, no one will force ties upon you which require the greatest liberty of will if you shall be useful to the society?’
‘But how can freedom of will and ties of that nature be consistent with each other?’
‘Nothing can be demonstrated easier than that. The connection of the whole body does not confine the different parts of which it is composed in the motions of which they can be capable. The freedom of will, which every member enjoys, suffers no abatement if impelled by its own voluntary choice. The charming garlands which bind a free, but purified, will, are kept together by a union which forms itself voluntarily, animated by a spirit of the highest cultivation. The more you prosecute it, the nicer and the more penetrating your looks grow in the examination of the nature of words; the more your perceptibility encreases, and the more sensible you are, that in the inane compass of a retired life the noblest springs of our spirit are lamed, the more powerfully you will be attracted by a point of union in which all the faculties revive as if roused from a lethargy.’
‘What prospects! what hopes! Sennor!’
‘Prospects! hopes!’ he then resumed, with a gentle, but sarcastic, smile; ‘what prospects and hopes have been held out to you? Don’t speak of it. You are scarcely escaped from a miserable coast, and you presume already to see the shore of the opposite continent! You mistake clouds for the shore, Don Carlos: you see nothing but the coverings of rising tempests; a chaos big with terror. The rosy morn opens the gates of day with additional brighteness after gloomy and boisterous nights.’ . . .
We had, mean while, proceeded a great way through the rocky passage; and the mountains began, at length, to decrease gradually on the left and on the right. A valley opened to our view: the rising morn filed the apertures between the bushes with a sweet rosy dawn; and the objects we beheld assumed gradually a more romantic contour. As our torches began to become more useless and paler, we found ourselves and the whole valley involved in a thin vapour, out of which a uniform greenish-red back ground emerged. The objects around us began to lengthen, and every thing seemed to have dissolved itself to receive the rising day, and to be impregnated with its cheering light. Unutterable feelings crowded upon my senses; a rosy dream had lighted upon my inebriated soul, and all my ideas were floating in a dubious trance. I had frequently visited this forest on my hunting excursions, but never descried that spot, which seemed to be the production of my enraptured fancy. We entered, at length, a little wood of orange trees. . . . An antiquated fabric displayed itself at length to our view; a long avenue led towards it. Bending under the pressure of hoary time, its tottering ruins reclined against a hill, which protended over it in romantic beauty. Most of the windows were decayed; but those that had escaped the voracious tooth of all destroying time, I beheld, to my greatest astonishment, grated with new iron bars. An involuntary horror vibrated through my nerves at that ominous sight. I looked at my conductor, who walked by my side, absorpt in profound meditation. He seemed to have forgot that I was with him; his soul had unfolded herself on his countenance to a great expectation, and seemed to labour under the presension of an anticipated horror. I followed the old man through the gate, and we descended several steps. ‘Don’t fall, Don Carlos,’ he said, lighting me with his torch. But this don’t fall almost had thrown me headlong down the steps; I supported myself with difficulty by an iron bar, which was fixed into the wall; and it was high time that we reached the bottom, else I should certainly have dropt down fainting. But I now could support myself no longer. ‘Give me leave to rest a little,’ I said to my conductor, and seated myself on the undermost step: ‘I am quite exhausted.’
The old man turned round with marks of surprise, and viewed me by the light of his torch. (Mine I had flung away at the entrance.) ‘So soon, Don Carlos?’ he exclaimed. ‘Holy Virgin! how pale you are! Be a man.’ . . . A long passage led us deeper into the fabric; steps which alternately led us up and down narrow ways; spacious caves variegated the scene every minute. We entered at length a regularly vaulted and very spacious apartment. ‘Stay here, Don Carlos!’ my conductor said, extinguishing his torch, and vanished suddenly. Not the least sound, not the most secret motion of air enabled me to find out whither he had turned. Whithersoever I extended my hands, I could find nothing but a dreary vacuity: I was in a spacious grave, the walls of which I could not discover. . . . The space around me began at length to grow visibly lighter, which probably was owing to the rising day, whose rays penetrated though a small aperture in the wall; and I could already discern myself again when a door was opened. Two masked men, with lighted torches, entered, and assisted me to get up. . . .
A numerous assembly of men, covered with white masks, offered themselves to my view on our entrance into a hall, which was splendidly illuminated by two large lustres, the light of which was reflected by a number of mirrors. They were seated on low arm chairs, which joined in the centre on an elevated spot, where, as it appeared, the chief of the society was sitting. He had a table before him, on which I beheld some books, a cross, a dagger, a goblet, and some unknown instruments. An empty chair, which seemed to be designed for me, was standing beneath the lustres. A profound solemn silence swayed for a few moments in that awful assembly, till my two conductors had taken their seats, when the chief, who sat opposite me, rose from his elevated seat. He stepped to the table, and uncovered his face. A noble and unspeakable [sic] enchanting countenance, where heavenly goodness, mixed with the vestiges of the bitterest experience, was enthroned, struck me with reverential awe. A clear look, which raised itself with peaceful serenity above the confines of this terrestrial life, and a brow, which braved the tempests of sorrow, captivated my soul. The silent plan of a new creation seemed to rest in the former, and the latter was a complete picture of the most perfect humanity. I could have prostrated myself before and adored that great man.
‘Thou are come, Carlos, to get acquainted with us?’ he now began, in a soft accent. I affirmed it silently. . . .
‘What is your desire, Don Carlos?’ he now resumed. ‘To get acquainted with this society, reverend father.’ ‘And then to become a member of it?’ ‘I have duties incumbent on me as a man; duties which I have been taught to hold sacred: I am ready to become one of you, if you will not violate them.’ ‘And what duties are they?’ ‘To love mankind; to be charitable to every one that meets me; to forgive my enemy; to love every one who wishes me well.’ ‘Every one, Carlos?’ ‘Every one, my father.’ ‘Is this a duty which no circumstances will prompt thee to renounce, against which the arguments of reason, and the persuasion of your heart, never will prevail?’ ‘Neither my reason nor my heart will ever make me renounce it.’ ‘Then you are unfit for our society! – Lead him hence, my brethren.’
‘Do not reject me too rashly, my father, (I replied:) do not condemn me without trial. Tell me what you desire, and what the bond of your brethren requires: I swear to be sincere in return, and to be entirely yours, if I can.’ ‘We require nothing of you, Carlos, except the very thing you have declared yourself not to be able to do. If you will become a deserving member of our community, you must dissolve all bonds whereby men bind themselves to men. Our property is only to be found in the world at large. Murder your father, poniard a beloved sister, and we shall receive you with open arms. When human society expels you, when the laws prosecute you, when the state execrates you, then you shall be welcome to us. However, our society rejects the tear of humanity. . . . Is it a miserable, cheating bargain, to exchange one sister for a thousand brothers? Would you not deem the preservation of millions worth one poor drop of blood from your own breast.’
‘I understand your words, reverend father, but cannot comprehend their mystic sense. . . . Conduct me into the sanctuary of the principles by which your society is guided, and try me whether I am docile enough to be your pupil.’ . . .
‘You know the lamentable state of our country. The grievances of the whole nation cannot but affect you also. All ranks are confounded, or rather, are reduced to one, by despotism’s galling scourge. The people are miserable slaves. Necessity has formed this society, and oppression has strengthened our mutual ties. Lurking dangers have forced us to be on our guard, and to court retirement and solitude. A century has made us wise. Experience taught us to proceed with moderation. The society chose their members from the ablest geniuses of the nation, who are intrusted with all our secrets, are wholly devoted to us, and feel themselves happy.'
'Have the view of the association always been entirely general?'
'They have never been otherwise. All countries of importance are ours through the members of our society. Here only is the centre of our united strength.’ ‘Do you aim at the dominion of the world?’ ‘To promote the happiness of the world is universal dominion.’ ‘And the means?’ ‘You see their symbols on this table. Faith, dagger and poison.’ I trembled with horror. . . . ‘Well! then receive me into your society! I devote myself entirely to you. Tell me, what am I to do?’ ‘Nothing but to renounce every doubt; to confide in our decrees; to obey our orders, and to act your part well. Dagger and poison are the greatest friends of humankind. Thousands of new lives germinate from the urn of one man, whose doom is fixed, if the welfare of the human race requires it: his death is unavoidable in that case, though he be a monarch!’ . . .
Having suppressed my agitation, I exclaimed, with horror, ‘Shocking! very shocking! The life of a king, did you say?’ ‘Yes, the life of a thousand kings. The liberty of man is an unalienable family property. Who steals it is a criminal; who artfully purchases it from the possessor for a false appearance of inane happiness is an impostor. Whoever feels himself strong enough to punish crimes, is his natural judge. Our forefathers gave us monarchs; we re-demand our rights, and summon them before a higher tribunal. . . . Believe me, dear Carlos,’ he continued, taking me by the hand, and looking at me with an eye sparkling with a heavenly fire, ‘you also will, one time, confidently adopt our creed. The hallowed bosom of solitude inspires the soul with elevated, heavenly sentiments; the sublimest plans are generated in the profoundest darkness of night and obscurity: what an endless bliss to extend one’s arms over the whole globe, to be entirely independent, to be no more exposed to the painful sensation of the wants of life, nor to the caprice of circumstances and the blasts of accidents?’
Being surprised and conquered, I sank into the arms of the venerable speaker. ‘Approach, my brethren,’ he resumed, ‘and receive the oath of eternal love from his lips.’
I was in the twinkling of an eye encircled by every arm; and the horrid vow escaped my lips at the altar, amid the kisses of my new brethren. Being inebriated by a beverage out of the goblet, I dropped down at the foot of the altar, laying my hand upon the cross: my arm was uncovered, a vein opened with the point of a dagger, and the streaming blood circulated in a goblet among all my brethren. The old man embraced me once more. ‘Go now, my son,’ said he to me, ‘go, and receive the reward which you deserve.’
[SOURCE: Horrid Mysteries. A Story from the German of the Marquis of Grose. By P. Will, 2 vols. (ed. Montague Summers) (London: Robert Holden, 1927), vol. 1, pp. 7085]
Return to The 'German' School of Horror
Return to Index of Gothic Readings