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´╗┐Title: Elderflowers
Author: Raabe, Wilhelm
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Elderflowers" ***

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Elderflowers

A story by Wilhelm Raabe (1831-1910)

A Recollection of the 'House of Life'


I am a doctor, a general practitioner of long standing and a
medical officer of health.  Four years ago I was decorated with the
Order of the Red Eagle (Third Class) and, having been born some
years prior to the turn of the century, am therefore quite near to
the end of my biblical lifespan.  I used to be married.  My
children have done well for themselves.  My sons are all standing
on their own two feet and my daughter has found herself a good
husband.  I cannot complain of my heart and my nerves as they are
robust and have often held out when other people's, not without
good reason, would have failed.  We doctors become, as it were,
both inwardly and outwardly thick-skinned, and, as we become immune
to epidemic viruses, so nothing can prevent us from assuming roles
as loyal and imperturbable counsellors to unadulterated grief and
inarticulate despair.  Every man should do his duty and I hope that
I always do mine to the best of my ability.  Doctors who think that
their task is over once they have marked with a cross or some other
symbol the name of a dead patient on their list are bad doctors.
Very often our hardest task is only just beginning then.  We, whose
skill and knowledge have been shown to be so powerless, who are so
often not seen by the friends and relatives of our patients in the
most favourable and equitable of lights, should still do our best
to find words of consolation for those relatives and friends.  The
hours we must spend with and visits we must pay to those left
behind after the coffin has been taken out of the house are much
more painful than those we passed at the bedside of the hopeless
case.

All this has nothing to do, of course, with the observations that
follow.  I merely want to show, by means of an example, what a
wonderful thing the human soul is.  Not without good reasons have I
entitled these personal memoirs "Elderflowers".  The reader will
presently appreciate just what an influence Syringa vulgaris has
had on me.

It was a clear, cold day in January.  The sun was shining and
packed snow crackled underfoot as people went past while the wheels
of carts made a shrill, squealing sound as they turned.  The
weather was healthy and invigorating and I filled my lungs once
more with a deep breath before ringing, at three o'clock in the
afternoon, the doorbell of one of the stateliest mansions in one of
the stateliest streets in the town.

I knew what I was doing when I strove to take with me as much human
warmth as I possibly could into that elegant home.  And yet nobody
was lying inside critically ill and there was no corpse there.  My
scalpel would be superfluous and I would not even need to make out
a prescription.

I did not have long to wait at the door.  An old servant with a
careworn face opened up to me and bowed his head in silent
greeting.  I walked through the long and cold entrance hall and
slowly ascended the wide staircase one step at a time.

I had of late climbed these stairs on numerous occasions, at all
hours of the day and night.  Upstairs, near a bend in the banister,
stood a fine plaster cast of a pensive muse who, gracefully
enshrouded by her veils, had been given the attitude of leaning her
chin on her hand.  When the great city slept, when the light of the
lamp, which the old servant carried in front of me, deep into the
night, came to rest on that pure, white shape, I gazed upon it
steadily in passing and tried to take with me something of the
bust's lovely and eternal tranquillity behind that fateful door
where... but that was all over with now, the fever had won and the
coffin with the young virgin's head cradled on a white satin
headrest, had been taken downstairs past this selfsame statue.  The
coffin had then been taken through the hallway and outside through
the streets of the town.  Three weeks had gone by--time enough for
the grave to be covered with snow and for the cold winter sun to
now be shining on it.

I walked on through well-ordered rooms where beautiful pictures
were hanging on the walls and flowers were arranged in window-boxes
and the floor was overlaid by soft carpets.  But every room I
entered I found cold and uninhabitable.

Door after door I opened and closed gently till I found myself
standing in front of the last one leading to the last remaining
room in that part of the house, a corner bedroom already well-known
to me.  I stood outside the door to listen for a moment as somebody
inside the bedroom moved about.

I knew what I was going to find in that bedroom, but I felt,
nevertheless, a cold, clammy sweat breaking out on my forehead and
all the nerve-endings on my skin ever so slightly beginning to
tingle.  Even the most case-hardened doctor is never quite hardened
enough and today I was to learn the truth of that all over again.

It was a warm and cheerful, comfortable room into which I now
entered.  Here too sunlight inundated everything, reflected by the
room's big mirrors.  And here too, on the window-sill, pretty
flowers were in evidence, and somewhere, in amongst them, a finely
wrought birdcage with two songbirds in it.  Over here was a piano
with the lid up and, in front of it, a piano-stool the seat of
which had been embroidered.  A songbook lay open on the music
holder.  Everything in that room pointed to the fact that a woman
and, moreover, a young woman, lived there or rather had lived
there.  Everything bore the hallmark of a single young lady's
delicacy; a married woman or an old maid would not have had the
same taste in interior design.  The pale-looking woman, dressed in
black, whom I greeted wordlessly and who, kneeling on the carpet in
front of an open drawer, looked up at me with eyes terribly sad,
drained absolutely dry of tears, came here every day to drink in
every minute of this fading brilliance and fragrance: the
fragrance and the brilliance, alas, of what had been and never
would be more.

After exchanging greetings, we spoke but little.  The bereaved
mother addressed me as usual with the words:  "Thank you for
coming, dear friend!" and then I sat down on the embroidered stool
in front of the piano, resting my head in my hand, watching this
woman as she stooped to do things.

She was busy ordering the little treasures that her daughter had
left behind her after her brief stay on earth.  Each day she would
imbibe another bitter draught from that chalice of memory which all
those who have lost a loved one clutch at so tightly.

Now it was up to her to sort out letters from school friends, old
birthday presents, items of personal jewellery and a hundred and
one other curiosities of a manifold and colourful multiplicity
which art and craft, full of hidden meanings, bestow on their
favourites in this world.  Everything that came to hand was treated
by this poor woman as a sentient, living thing.  She lingered over
it, talked to it and called it to mind, remembering just when it
had first come into the house to give pleasure to or perhaps, in
some cases, to slightly unsettle the woman's now dead daughter.
Here, for instance, was a smashed shepherdess in porcelain and
thereby hung a tale and this proud mother told it to herself, to me
and to the multi-coloured gilded ornament with all its twists and
turns, exactly as it had happened.  Then, as my hands wandered
absent-mindedly over the piano keys behind me, a look of jealousy
flashed across the face of that much-to-be-pitied narrator: would
the hand of a stranger dare to play again those notes that had once
belonged to the deceased?

As the woman once more cast her livid face downwards, my glance
chanced to fall on the songbook lying open on the music-holder.
The song contained therein was a sad one.  Was it just a
coincidence that the songbook lay open at that particular place or
had the dead girl, somewhat ominously, turned to it herself?  It
read as follows:

Should fate bestow on you a precious gift,
Needs must you lose some other dear advantage;
Pain, like success, is gathered bit by bit,
And what you long for most will do most damage.

A human hand is like a childish hand
That grabs at life, then wantonly destroys it.
It ruins what it cannot understand
And clings to something though it ne'er enjoys it.

A human hand is like a childish hand,
Man's heart a childish heart, full of childish fears.
Never lose your grip! ...  Life's a burning brand
And laughter, soon or late, for aye changed to tears.

Should fate bestow on you a garland wreath,
You needs must pluck away its finest flower;
You to yourself destruction will bequeath
And over scattered petals cry and cower.

With this song came the first reminder of a bygone age to which,
however, a further reminder would need to be added before the
series of thoughts and impressions recorded in these pages finally
developed.

The sky outside was cold and blue over the roofs opposite.  The sun
was still shining through the high casement windows, but the ice
crystal patterns thereon, which had melted slightly in the heat of
the noonday sun, were already re-forming.  I had picked up from a
sewing table an ornamental ballroom spray of artificial flowers and
the sun also shone on this bouquet.

It was an artful and delicate concoction of white and blue
elderflowers and leaves and a single strand of long blonde hair had
got mixed up in it when the girl who was now dead had taken it out
of her hair after the ball held the night before her fatal fever
started.

There are many kinds of laurel wreaths in the world and just as
many ways of running after them to win them or to lose them.  Is
not every life an attempt to weave a garland by and for oneself?
We all set about the work to the best of our strength and ability
and are all more or less successful in completing it.  Often very
fine work is produced, but then again hopelessly botched jobs as
well come to light.  Many a wreath is destroyed before completion
and many a proud garland, having adorned the head of some elevated
personage, eventually falls into the hands of a total stranger who,
while holding it, examines it and tears it apart leaf by leaf as an
austere winter sun, ill-disposed to all borrowed plumes and tinsel,
looks on impassively.

The decorative spray I was holding in my hand just then was not, of
course, destined to suffer that fate.  It consisted for the most
part of elder blossoms and, though it was only an artificial,
trumped-up thing, its heart-warming vivacity was such that, old as
I was, with white hairs on my head that had not sprung up there
overnight, I was plunged into the contemplation of increasingly
remote and wild blue yonders.  Memories awoke in me which had, at
bottom, little to do with the deceased youngster's ballroom favour.

Blame those elder blossoms for the deep and bitter seriousness with
which I now thought of the wreath that had twisted itself around my
own life, in part due to the efforts of my own hands, and the two
ends of which would soon now make contact with each other.

The song lying open on top of the piano had been written more for
me than for the young dead girl who had now, after a short and
happy sojourn on earth, fallen softly, painlessly and quietly
asleep, having worn this little wreath of fair spring flowers on an
even fairer head as a lovely symbol of her life and her success in
plaiting garlands.

I had been flung out into the world to fend for myself quite early
on in life and had lived as an orphan, heir to a not inconsiderable
fortune, in the house of a relative who was also a bilious
hypochondriac carrying morbid thoughts of death even into the most
cheerful of days and binding me with iron fetters to my daily
chores and then to unremitting study.  Discontented and
recalcitrant, I would sit in a darkened room and my childhood, which
contains the happiest days of your life under normal circumstances,
passed by wretchedly and inauspiciously enough under the watchful
gaze of those surly eyes.  The unbridled pleasure and the heady
exaltation to be found in a circle of carefree companions were
unknown to me then.  I never once got a thrashing for a silly puerile
prank, and that an incalculable blessing was denied me in this way,
which no grammatical treat could ever take the place of, is something
that more than one well-educated gentleman can testify to.

There was much that was fascinating and exotic in many of the books
over which I had to pore all day long, but even the most splendid
and dazzling of gods and goddesses came over to me as no better
than grisly torturers, and ancient heroes and philosophers appeared
to me to fight their battles and impart their wisdom only as a way
for them to vent on me their arbitrary spleen, poor prisoner that I
was.  They had lived their lives and carried out their exploits
only to drag me, thousands of years later, through terrifying
labyrinths full of monstrous vocabulary and to push me over gloomy
precipices bristling with the brambles of complex grammatical
constructions.

When this seven-year apprenticeship to misery had finally finished,
I naturally broke loose like a wild animal from its chain and the
first and hitherto imponderable consequences of such an upbringing
came to the fore.  I belonged at university to the wildest and the
most anarchic of its confraternities and my standing in the eyes of
my dignified tutors was appreciably less than it was in the eyes of
my distinctly undignified cronies.

I naturally got as far away as possible from the area in which my
guardian and relative lived and embarked on my academic career in
Vienna, which was still, in those days, Mozart's Vienna of 'wine,
women and song'.  And when the ground beneath my feet had grown too
hot for me there, and too many eyes were taking too much notice of
what I was doing, I went to Prague, a city world-famous for its
Schools of Medicine.

The sun was dancing still over the ballroom favour in my hand and
the solitary hair, which its beautiful wearer had left behind
between the white and now reddish blossoms, glowed like a thread
of spun gold.  I remembered the old city of Prague with its one
hundred towers and another fair maiden whose hair though had been
black and I remembered other elderflowers.  Prague!  A town of
lunacy and gaiety!  A town of martyrs and musicians and beautiful
women!  Prague!  How much of my freedom-loving soul you have taken
away from me!

They say that when a Czech mother has given birth to a child, she
lays it on the roof: if it stays there it is destined to become a
thief, if it rolls off it is destined to be a musician.  If the
foregoing aphorism had come out of a German head, Bohemians would
probably have had a lot to say about it, but, as it is a pan-Slavic
dictum, we must take it as it is, at face value.  In the old and
fabulous city of Prague, when I was studying medicine there, such a
child existed, the offspring of a Bohemian mother who was also
Jewish.  It had failed to fall off the roof, having indeed anchored
itself thereto, and was therefore fated to become a thief.  It stole
my heart and yet I did not love it and the story that grew out of
all this was a sad one.

Then it was, if anything, even more difficult than today to find
Prague's famous Jewish cemetery if you were a stranger in the town.
One simply did, and still does, the best one can to find the place,
and so I too, the day after my first arrival in Prague, asked the
way there, having just, coming from the Grosser Ring, gone down
Ghost Lane, at which point I had got lost in the nameless confusion
of little streets and alleyways that together surround 'the good
place'.

As it is a matter of principle with me to turn to the most pleasant
face I can find in any quandary caused by unfamiliar surroundings
to help me, this was what I did now, but I fell from one difficulty
straight into another: the people I met were all, without
exception, as ugly as sin.  Had I been willing to turn to the most
repulsive face among them, I might have succeeded in arriving at my
destination sooner.  Eventually, however, I saw what I was looking
for.

On a washing line strung up in front of a shadowy doorway hung an
old frock and a not-ungracious fifteen-year-old girl was
nonchalantly leaning against the door-jamb.  She kept her hands and
her arms hidden behind her back and looked at me.  I looked back at
her and decided to put my question.  Hers was not the kind of face
well-to-do people have and, before I received a response, a small
brown hand came out from behind the child's back and was thrust
towards me with unmistakable intent and there was nothing left for
me to do but to deposit there a six-kreuzer piece.

"Our old graveyard, you say.  Why, I'll take you there myself,
sir."

Her wiry form sprang forthwith down three dirty steps, sailed past
me without even turning round and started to lead me in a veritable
zigzag through the most abominable nooks and crannies, back streets
and alleyways in which offers came from all directions with a view
to purchasing my old black German velvet frock-coat.  I did not
even stop to turn these offers down but concentrated all my
attention on the dainty jack o'lantern who was acting as my guide
in these uncanny regions and who, playfully enjoying my
discomfiture as she did so, was leading me astray.

We came at last into a narrow dead-end and turned off to the right
between two high stone walls at the end of which a curious round
arched door led to an equally curious dark passageway.  My light
footed guide came to a halt outside this entrance, pointed to the
darkness that prevailed there and said with an apparent candour
that really took the biscuit:  "Just knock on that door down
there."

Although I did not have the slightest inkling of where it was I
ought to knock, I groped my way along the passage more by good luck
than good management, till I finally stumbled on a darkened door.
I knocked on it, hearing moans and groans and then a shuffling
sound coming from inside.  Then the door opened and I stood there
rooted to the spot in terror by an unsavoury old witch screeching
at me in Czech.  Three more of these sorceresses were creeping up
on me on crutches and they too were snarling something
unintelligible at me.  Totally taken aback I gazed about me in the
semi-darkness of the long low room.  There were six beds there and,
in two of them, two terrible spectres were sitting up and staring
at me like the unfortunate creatures that Gulliver encountered on
his travels, those beings who were born with a black spot on their
forehead and who were incapable of dying.  I had the temerity to
repeat my question about the Jewish cemetery even though my own
misgivings warned me I had let myself be led here by the nose and
that the question itself was quite inadmissible under the
circumstances.  I found myself, a moment later, back again in the
sinister dark passage already depicted, happy to have gained my
freedom without having had my eyes scratched out.  Inside the room
there was pandemonium.  The urchin, my will-of-the-wisp, my
precious Jewish sweetheart, had led me for my half-a-dozen kreuzers
to a charitable hospice for six old Christian ladies instead of to
the venerable Israelite to whom the key to Beth Chaim had been
entrusted.

A sound of high-pitched laughter roused me from my vexed and
disconcerted state.  Outside in the alleyway the sun was shining
and, in the sunshine at the end of the dark passage, another witch
was dancing and "dere iss no creadure vairer dan a vitch van she is
younk beink."

She danced in the sunshine and pulled a long face at me and I shook
my fist at her threateningly:  "Just you wait, you witch, you
temptress, you little female devil from Prague, you!"

She, however, pointed with her finger at her mouth and called out
mockingly:  "Strc prst skrz krk!"  These lilting syllables,
noticeable for the richness of their consonant clusters, roughly
translated mean something like:  "Go and stick your finger down
your throat!"  Then the goblin disappeared and I was free to
reflect on the underlying meaning of her words to my heart's
content, but I chose not to and, after such an untoward experience,
I decided not to ask anyone else the way to the old Jewish
cemetery, but began, with Germanic thoroughness, to look for it
myself.  I trusted to my own lights and they did not leave me in
the lurch, but brought me, in the end, by way of the dirtiest
labyrinth of buildings that the human mind can imagine, to the gate
that led to that awesome, oft-described domain of a thousand years
of dust.

I saw there the countless tombstones piled up on top of one another
and the ancient elder trees that twist and spread their gnarled old
branches round and over them.  I wandered down the narrow graveyard
paths and saw the jugs of Levi and the hands of Cohen and the
grapes of Canaan.  As a mark of respect I laid, like everyone else,
a small stone on the grave of the Chief Rabbi, Judah Loew ben
Bezalel.  Then I sat down on a grimy gravestone dating from the
fourteenth century and the uncanny nature of the place impressed
itself upon me with considerable force.

For a thousand years the dead of God's chosen people had been
gathered here together, hemmed in in the same way that the living
had been by the narrow walls of the ghetto.  The sun shone brightly
and it was spring and, from time to time, a cool gust of wind
stirred the branches and the blossoms of the elder trees so that
they brushed against the graves and filled the air with a sweet
fragrance.  I, on the other hand, was finding it more and more
difficult to breathe.  Was this really the place they called Beth
Chaim, the House of Life?

From that black, damp, mouldy earth which had swallowed whole so
many sorely-tried, ill-treated, put-upon and harassed generations
of living beings and into which life after life had sunk as into a
bottomless, all-consuming swamp--from that mildewed ground, I say,
rose a pungent aroma of decomposition more suffocating than the
stench that emanates from the unburied carcass of a beached whale,
sufficiently funereal as an odour to cancel out completely all the
sunlight and the pleasant scents exuded by both flowers and spring
breezes.

I have already mentioned that I was, at that time in my life,
something of a hell-raiser.  The feeling, however, I was gripped by
at that moment was adequate proof, even to me, of a latent, as yet
underlying seriousness in my character.

My head was lolling further and further down on my chest when,
suddenly, right next to me, on top of me, I heard the sound of
childish, high-pitched laughter already familiar to me from my
having heard it once before.  This time I was startled and, looking
up quickly, caught a fleeting glimpse of a delightful female form.

In the foliage of one of the low elder-bushes which, as has already
been pointed out, covered the whole of the graveyard, in amongst
the flowers themselves, on one of those fantastically gnarled
branches which the spring, in its splendour and its glory, had
crowned so abundantly with greenery and blossoms, sat the practical
joker who had made such a bad job of showing me the way here,
smiling roguishly down at her adopted German student.

No sooner had I stretched out my hand to catch this spook than,
quick as a flash, it disappeared and I saw the next instant a
laughing nut-brown face, framed by jet-black locks, near the grave
of the Chief Rabbi as if she wanted to entice me after her again,
tempting me this time to chase her over the old burial ground.  But
this time I did not permit myself to be led astray for I already
knew full well that it would do me no good to run after her.  She
would only have vanished into the ground, down into that black
earth, or, what was perhaps even more likely, have disappeared into
the elder trees sheltering the graves.  I continued to stand there
stock-still and took not the least bit of comfort from the fact
that it was broad daylight and high noon, for who could say but
that this haunted place might be subject to supernatural laws quite
different from the natural laws that operated elsewhere.

I stood there and was very careful not to move and when the imp saw
that her laughter and come-hither gestures were no longer helping
her, this little enchantress of mine changed her tack.  Her young
face grew serious, and, jumping down gracefully from her branch,
she bowed politely to me and then, planting herself squarely in
front of me, bowed again, saying:  "Forgive me, handsome sir.  I
shan't do you any more mischief now."

She tolerated my taking her by the hand and did not try to prevent
me from pulling her nearer so that I could look her straight in the
eye.  She even, to my amazement, gave a clear and sensible account
of herself when I asked her where she came from and what she was
called.  Unless she was lying like a leprechaun this neglected and
yet utterly charming being did not entirely inhabit the ethereal
realm of Make-Believe and was not a daughter of Oberon and Titania
but the progeny instead of very down-to-earth parents who were
dealers in old clothes and general household requisites in the
Josephstown area of Prague.  I also learned the number of the house
where she lived and her name, Jemimah, like the daughter of Job,
that splendid fellow who hailed from the land of Uz, and Jemimah
means 'day'.

Even though her father's name was not Job but Baruch Loew, the
latter was a passable counterpart to that paragon of patience in
his time of trouble.  On the subject of Jemimah's mother I would
rather not say anything.

Nor will I enlarge upon the squalor I saw in house number 533 in
the Jewish quarter when I went there for the first time after
making the acquaintance of the daughter of the house.  I craftily
pawned my watch there even though I had a new, not inconsiderable
personal allowance in my pocket.  And what I smelt in that house
was almost worse than what I saw.

But a spell had been put on me and it was a powerful spell and was
destined to become a dark spell.  How could it be otherwise when,
forty years later, in that elegant, peaceful and spotlessly clean
Berlin home all it took was a garland of elderflowers, worn by a
young girl at a dance, to bring it all back to me again?

I had come to Prague from the fleshpots of Vienna with the firm
intention of gracing the College of Doctors there, to work
extremely conscientiously and to make up for lost time with renewed
zeal.  Nothing came of it.  It was not that I reverted to my former
wild behaviour, to that life-style which has brought many a young
medical student to the point of having to apply the noble art of
healing to his own body.  On the contrary, neither midnight revelry
accompanied by crazy bouts of drinking, neither Melniker wine,
Pilsner beer, nor slivovice had retained the attraction they had
had for me formerly and yet I was no less intoxicated for all that
and used up endless quantities of Hungarian tobacco to allay the
confusion of my dreams.  That little Jewish witch, Jemimah Loew,
followed me everywhere: to my room in Nekazalka Street, to
lectures, even as far as the dissecting room table.  It was a
forlorn hope for me now to study therapeutics and pathology and to
slice up human corpses and the vital organs of dogs, cats, rabbits
and frogs.  And so, in Prague too, I set to one side my resolution
to be diligent and put it off until another later time and another
university.

In my room in Nekazalka Street I lay down on the hard settee,
veiled in thick, blue, aromatic clouds of smoke and pondered the
deepest and most sensible propositions ever formulated on the
wonders of the human soul.  I should, of course, have been quite
incapable then of writing a book on how passion comes to fruition
and then withers away.  When I had smoked and dreamed my fill, I
got up to continue my daydreaming standing, drifting away through
the streets of a town which itself is like a dream.

In the Grosser Ring I could hear girls chattering away in Czech and
German at the fountain and at night I would listen to the pious
praying of the congregation in Tyn Church to their statue of the
Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Hungarian grenadier-guards on sentry duty
at the Old Town Hall were relieved by their Italian counterparts.
Life's richest tapestries shifted and changed just as in a magic
lantern show.  Then, once again, I strolled up and down the
Vyshehrad Hill where geese cackle and goats graze over the floors of
sunken royal palaces and abnormally torn and tattered washing is
hung up to dry.  Once more I placed myself under the protection of
St John Nepomuk on his famous bridge and gazed for hours at the
Moldau without any justification for doing so that my rational
immortal soul could make sense of.  Then I would climb through the
steep streets of the Kleinseite, walk up the steps to the Hradcany
Castle area and look out over the battlements to see that proud
Bohemian city stretched out at my feet.  Many a hot summer hour I
spent in the cool and shady vestibule of St Vitus's Cathedral but
Jemimah Loew followed me even under the purple canopy that
overhangs St John Nepomuk's sarcophagus.  Here, in the Wenceslas
Chapel, is the great door ring which the holy duke and patron saint
of Prague held on to in his final agony while he was being murdered
by his treacherous brother.  If one kisses this ring with all due
solemnity it is useful and effectual against many kinds of evil,
but oh, against the problems that were pressing down on me such a
kiss would not have helped.  Moreover a good remedy for headaches
is to rub off the dust from an old wooden carving near the main
door and to make three signs of the cross on one's forehead with
it.  I often had headaches, genuine physical ones, not just
imaginary, in those strange days and was never once able to cure
them by crossing myself.  The pain only abated somewhat when I
rushed helter-skelter down the steps from St Vitus's Cathedral and
the imperial castle and crossed the Charles Bridge, passing the
statue of St John Nepomuk and various other statues en route to the
Josephstown Jewish quarter.  Only in the shadow of the old grim
walls and houses of the Jewish ghetto did my head feel better, but
I went on feeling feverish for all that.

I had now been friendly with the gatekeeper of the famous graveyard
for a long time and no longer paid the six kreuzers which the royal
and imperial authorities had fixed as his remuneration for showing
round curious foreigners whenever I wished to gain access to this
kingdom of the dead.

I had won early on the affection of this greybeard inasmuch as I
knew how to see eye to eye with him on the intrinsic value of the
history of the Jewish people and so we wandered up and down among
the graves and many a life story and many a legend I let him tell
me there.  In effect, one could learn a great deal from these
monuments and grey stones which bear such a strong resemblance to
those strewn about in the valley of Jehoshaphat.

Jemimah Loew was related to the gatekeeper, his granddaughter,
great-granddaughter, great-niece or some such thing: the passage of
time has erased from my mind the actual degree of kinship.  She
often came with us on our walks, sat next to us and made her own
observations, often clever and appropriate ones, by way of
contribution to our conversations.

Those were the days.  What precious hours we spent together.  There
were moments that we shared in that old graveyard with its
overhanging elder trees, the melancholy charm of which it would be
impossible for me to describe in words.  Now the air in this place
was no longer unbreathable to me and there were no more ghosts in
the sunlight that penetrated through the leaves and danced on the
graves.  I was now on increasingly familiar terms with those grey
stones.  Better even than the old man Jemimah introduced me to them
and when the gatekeeper had fallen asleep in his armchair or had
plunged too deeply into the unfathomable subtleties of the Talmud,
we took good care not to disturb him.  Hand in hand we slipped away
to Beth-Chaim and were a law unto ourselves during those singular
summer days which had not been so lovely for many a long year.

Yes, Beth-Chaim!  This graveyard had truly become for me a "house
of life".  When this young girl spelt out for me the wondrous
hieroglyphics on those Hebrew headstones, the life of a person of
whose very existence I had hitherto had no notion was vividly
conjured up for me.  Wise, virtuous and pious men and women, noble
perseverers of both sexes, handsome men and boys awoke from a
slumber that had lasted centuries and soon their shades had taken
on the most lifelike of appearances.  Soon I was on intimate terms
with all these people from a world previously unknown to me which,
for all its differences, still had much in common with the present,
and believed in them as I believed in the historical and legendary
characters of my own country's history.

Usually we sat near the tomb of Rabbi Loew, from whom my little
teacher thought herself to be descended and of whom she was very
proud.  She told me many things about this learned man: how he had
had dealings with the Emperor Rudolf the Second and had called up
for him the spirits of the patriarchs, how he had known everything
there was to know about the Talmud and the Cabbala, how he had
employed a 'golem' or servant from the spirit world, how he had
courted his wife, the beautiful Pearl, daughter of Samuel, and how
he had had 400 scholars studying under him and lived to be 140
years old.

I took it all in, however, hanging on my storyteller's each and
every word more single-mindedly than any of the 400 scholars had
hung on the erstwhile words of Chief Rabbi Loew in the yeshiva of
the three cells.

We did not speak of love for, strictly speaking, I suppose, I did
not love this girl, but was, and still am, incapable of putting any
other name to the tender feelings that drew me to her.  These
oscillated like the moods of the girl herself, like the weather on
an April day, like the light summer clouds scudding over Prague and
the elderflower and lilac bushes of Beth-Chaim.

There were times when I considered that Jemimah, a direct blood
descendant of Hayyim, Chief Rabbi Jehuda's elder brother, was
nothing more or less than a mischievous little guttersnipe with
whom one could, agreeably enough perhaps, while away the odd
quarter of an hour.  At other times she struck me as a sprite,
endowed and equipped with superior powers to torture mankind and,
with the best will in the world, a predisposition to misuse those
powers.  Then she went back to being a poor but pretty,
melancholic, albeit radiant creature, half child, half woman, for
whom one might quite easily have shed one's blood, for whom one
might have gladly died.  I was fatally smitten at the time with a
fever that was gradually getting worse, for the fluctuating shapes
and sensations which assailed my soul then are only to be found in
the fantasies of fever victims.

That was also a time when I read with great zeal and enjoyment
tinged with sorrow the works of Shakespeare, so much so that I used
to imagine that all that author's heroines had come together as one
in this uneducated Jewish teenager, the quarrelsome Katharina no
less than the sweet-tempered Imogen, Rosalind no less than Helena,
Titania, Olivia, Sylvia, Ophelia, Jessica, Portia and all the rest
of them.

Jemimah Loew had never read Shakespeare, had indeed never even
heard of him, and all she was able to surmise from my rambling
dissertations on this writer was that I was comparing her to
various pagan and Christian women and she smiled incredulously at
me and one day, round about the middle of autumn, just as the first
signs of winter were in the air, as the leaves of the elder and
lilac were turning to their autumn tints just like all the other
leaves, one day in mid-autumn she grabbed my hand and dragged me
down a gloomy graveyard path to a cemetery wall where there was a
grave that we had not so far looked at.

She read me the inscription on the headstone and stated:  "That'll
be me!"  The word MAHALATH had been chiselled thereon in Hebrew
letters and underneath it the date: 1780.

Why did I feel so frightened?  Was it not foolishness on my part to
stare like a numbskull, as if the cat had got my tongue, at the
girl now standing next to me?

And yet she was not laughing at me, nor was she pleased at the
successful outcome of a jest.  With melancholy gravity and folded
arms she stood there, leaning against the headstone, and said,
without so much as waiting to be asked:  "Her name was Mahalath and
that's exactly what she was: in other words, a dancer.  Her heart
was sick like mine and she was the last woman to be laid to rest
here in this, our Beth-Chaim, the very last.  After that the good
emperor Joseph forbade that any more of our people should be
interred in this cemetery.  This woman, Mahalath, was the last of
them.  The good emperor Joseph also dismantled the wall of the
Jewish ghetto hereabouts and gave to it his own compassionate and
glorious name as a living memorial to his and to our own posterity.
He it was who smashed down the walls of this prison and at long
last let us breathe again in the company of other nations.  May the
God of Israel have mercy on his ashes."

"But who was this Mahalath?  What do you have to do with Mahalath,
Jemimah?"  I enjoined.

"Her heart was sick and it broke."

"Don't be so silly.  How can you know that about someone who was
buried in the year 1780?"

"We remember our people for a long time.  I know Mahalath like a
sister and I also know that her fate will be my fate too."

"Now you're being ridiculous!"  I shouted.  But at this, Jemimah
Loew suddenly put her hand over her heart and her face twitched
with pain as if she were suffering some great physical discomfort.

Once more I was violently assailed by fear and when she took my
hand and placed it on her bosom, my fear increased.

"Can you hear how it beats and throbs, Herman?  It's my death knell
ringing for my funeral.  You call yourself a great doctor and you
haven't even noticed it?"

She spoke these last words with such a charming smile on her face
that the idea of her early demise seemed all the more shocking to
me.  I seized both her hands in mine and shouted at her angrily:
"To joke about such things is madness!  In the ordinary way I make
allowances for you, but such words go too far, even for you!"

"No joke was intended," she replied.  "Do you want me to tell you
Mahalath's story?"

I could only nod my head, prey to an endless malaise of gloom and
foreboding.

Jemimah Loew commenced there and then to tell me the story:  "She
who lies buried here was called Mahalath because her limbs were
slim and supple and her feet seemed to dance when she walked.  She
too was born in the grime of poverty and darkness like I was, and
in even greater poverty and even greater darkness than me, for the
Jewish quarter of Prague was a much less happy place than it is
today during the reign of the great and mighty empress Maria
Theresa, and not even fresh air was granted to us free of charge
and every year we had to pay two hundred and eleven thousand
guilders for her gracious permission to waste away here by ourselves
amidst mist and darkness.  But Mahalath's soul was freer than that
of the proudest Christian woman in Prague.  She was well-read too
and played the lute with those fine hands of hers so that she came
to be called a pearl of her race like Rabbi Jehuda's wife, Pearl.
She was born in darkness and longed for the light.  Many great men
from all over the world have died for that.  Why should a poor girl
not lay down her life for it too?  Why are you looking at me like
that, Herman?  Are you also of the opinion that a girl can only die
for love?  Don't go thinking it was love that killed our Mahalath
even though her heart broke in the end.  Those who are of the opinion
that she died because of her affair with a young count are wrong.
The young count in question tried to abduct her from her father's
house by force and Her Imperial Majesty Maria Theresa later admitted
that he had had to flee abroad.  Mahalath laughed at this young fop
who had nothing more to give her than his name, his wealth, his
velvet frockcoat and his plumed hat.  They called her the dancer
and she died because her soul was too proud to reveal outwardly what
she suffered for her people inwardly.  The only place where she
could see the sun was here in Beth-Chaim.  She read the inscriptions
on the gravestones here and learned the stories of those who lie
buried under them and her soul danced over the graves until the
dead pulled her down to join them down below!"

How ominously the young girl at my side uttered that brief phrase
'down below'!

"Jemimah," I cried, clasping together my hands, not knowing what I
was doing: "Jemimah, I love you!"

But she stretched out her hand at me with an admonitory gesture and
stamped on the ground with her tiny foot.  "That's not true.  The
young lordling in his green and gold, the one with the white plumed
hat, didn't love Mahalath either and whoever proclaims that she
died for the love of him is lying.  She had something wrong with
her heart and our defunct forebears dragged her down to their level
to join them.  You say you love me, Herman, but, were I to begin
right now this minute to sink into Hades, you wouldn't lift a
finger to pull me back!"

How penetrating was the look she gave me!  It was as though her
dark eyes were drawing from my heart its deepest secrets.  If I had
truly loved her, I would have borne that look and answered it in
kind, but she was right to say I didn't love her and, because of
the high fever I was running, I averted my eyes from her and lowered
them.

The last thing that I wanted was to play her false, to betray her.
In befriending this poor girl no wicked thought had as yet
suggested itself to me.  Then why this debilitating guilt, this
feeling of remorse for which my memory was unable to account?  I
felt the burden of a terrible responsibility nagging at me as I
timidly and almost fearfully contemplated this adorable creature in
her threatening posture as her eyes flashed and her hand became a
fist in desperation to defend herself against her feelings of
affection for me.

"Poor Jemimah!  Poor Jemimah!" I cried, and now, for the first
time, our eyes met.  Gradually her looks grew less angry and her
eyes moistened and shone.  Her clenched fist fell open and was
placed on my arm.

"Don't be sad, my dear.  It's not your fault.  You have made me
very happy, dirty, ignorant, useless little thing that I am, and
for that I can never thank you enough.  You're not to blame if my
heart is so foolish it will one day overstep the limits God has set
to keep it safe inside my breast.  Feel how it's beating.  We have
here in the ghetto a great lady doctor.  I listened once behind the
door when she and my mother were talking about me.  It cannot be
otherwise.  My heart, when it gets too big, will be the death of
me."

"Jemimah, Jemimah, I'll get you other, better doctors who'll listen
to your chest with a stethoscope and tell you you're mistaken, that
the old quack has made an error in her diagnosis!"  I shouted.
"You'll live for a very long time and be a beautiful and gracious
lady.  You'll escape from this decadent and pestilential
atmosphere, from this horrible place that you're in!"

"Where to?  No, better to remain here where my ancestors have been
buried since the destruction of the Temple.  But you, my dear, will
go back to your own country and forget me as one forgets a dream.
How can you prevent a dream from coming to an end and the pale and
sensible morning from waking you and telling you that it was
nothing after all?  Leave and leave soon.  Both of us are fated to.
You will be an erudite and well-respected gentleman in your own
land, kind and compassionate to poor and weak alike as you were
kind and compassionate to me, for I too was poor and I too was weak
and you could have done me a great deal of harm had you really
wanted to.  Now these elder trees are bare and I am alive, but when
these old trees and bushes next spring stretch out their blossoms
to each other over the graves, I shall be lying as peaceful and
still under my headstone as Mahalath the dancer here who died in
the same year as the great and mighty empress, Maria Theresa.  How
long will you remember Jemimah Loew from the Josephsstadt when the
lilacs bloom then in Prague?"

Once again I tried to be totally objective and reasonable about
this silly speech, but could not, for the life of me, manage it and
righteous indignation met with just as scant success.  We both just
stood there mutely, side by side, at the dancer's final resting
place and, just as on that first morning, when I first came to this
spot, horror gripped me with its ghostly hand in broad daylight.
It was as if the earth itself were heaving like a molehill, as if
ghastly and skeletal hands were everywhere at once toppling back
the stones and pushing leaves and grass away from each other.  I
stood there as if caught between mounds of rolling skulls and all
that lively putrefaction reached out to me grinning and seemed to
have designs on the beautiful girl at my side.

It was a thing greatly to be wondered at that the tall thin man
from Danzig and the fat man from Hamburg who were having themselves
shown round Beth-Chaim at the time by Jemimah's old relative, were
signally oblivious to this freak of nature.  They strolled on
serenely, their hands in their trouser pockets, chinking their
small change in the hollow-eyed and grinning face of each
putrescent century.  The presence in this place of these two men in
no way frightened off the Manitou as might have been expected.
They only, on the contrary, served to accentuate its menace, for it
was quite unnatural that two grown men should be so blithely
unaware of what was going on under their very feet and all around
them.

As they came towards us I could hear how the man from Hamburg was
saying to the man from Danzig that he held the highly and unjustly
renowned Jewish cemetery of Prague to be nothing more or less than
a damnable swindle and a blasted old quarry and, once again, I
pulled myself together, wiped the sweat from my brow and cried out:
"No!  No!  This is lunacy!  It's the product of a sick mind!  How
can anyone let a stupid thing like this put the wind up them to
this extent?  If there wasn't something wrong with me, I too would
be walking round here every bit as calmly as those two visitors."

"Stop trying to fight it," said Jemimah, and, as the two strangers
and her old relative drew nearer to us, she ran away from me,
skipped lightly over Mahalath's grave, doubled over and slid off
through the low branches of the elder bushes, turning back once
more to look at me through their foliage and called out to me,
putting her finger to her mouth as was her wont:  "Remember the
elderflower!"

Then she disappeared and I never saw her again.  Is it not a bitter
truth that every human hand is like the hand of a child that cannot
hold on to anything for very long?  It snatches at anything shiny
or attractive or at anything expressly forbidden to it.  The first
it destroys out of childish curiosity while it stands before the
second open-mouthed or drops it out of sheer panic.

"Just who was this Mahalath who lies here underneath this
tombstone?" I asked the gatekeeper after the two Northern Germans
had departed.

The old man shrugged his shoulders.

"Her descendants still live in the ghetto.  The family is a
respected one in Jewish circles and, because of that, we are loath
to talk about it.  In the forty years since her death a whole host
of legends have grown up about her.  She had a love affair with a
young man from the Kleinseite, from the Malteserplatz.  For Jewish
people generally the honour of their family is paramount.  In
matters where the honour of a family is at stake we are punctilious
and can be very cruel.  Suffice it to say that the poor creature
ended her life unhappily and that the story is a sad one."

When the old man opened up the gate to Beth-Chaim for me, he had
good reason to stare at me, shaking his head.  Like a drunken man I
wandered up and down that day and tried in vain to weigh my guilt
and innocence against each other.  In vain I did everything
possible to shift the burden weighing now so heavy on my soul
elsewhere or at least to make it lighter by telling myself that the
words of this young girl were merely the meaningless whims and
fancies of an immature mind.

Finally I staggered back to my room in Nekazalka Street, took out
my medical textbooks and my slovenly and intermittent lecture notes
and began, all of a tremble, with unflagging application, to con
all that was written therein on the subject of the human heart, the
actual physical entity itself, its functions, its well-being and
its various ailments.  I later wrote a book about these things
which medical science has deemed most useful and which has been
reprinted several times.  If only medical science knew what this
reputation as a leading authority on heart disease has cost me in
personal terms.  Not only literary works are born out of personal
sorrow and grief.

It was very sultry that day.  Heavy white clouds came rolling up
over the rooftops and congregated there in threatening, leaden grey
cloudbanks and, in spite of the fact that there was hardly a breath
of air anywhere, I was driven from my room yet again, down into the
hot and sticky streets.  As the first clap of thunder reverberated
sonorously, making windows in the town vibrate in their frames, I
pulled on the rickety bell of the gatekeeper's house at the
entrance to the old Jewish cemetery.

Instead of the long-bearded, venerable head of the ancient there
appeared at the grille the wrinkled sallow face of the gatekeeper's
old female servant.

"Where is your master?  I must speak to him at once."

"God in heaven, young man.  You look awful.  Whatever's happened?
Why have you come back again so soon?  What spell is it that binds
you to this place?"

Without so much as bothering to answer her questions, I pushed my
way past the old chatterbox.  On over the dark, now, in the
thunderstorm, frightening, appallingly dark, paths of the cemetery
I hurried, and, on reaching the grave of the Chief Rabbi, found
there the old man, unperturbed by the ever more powerful outbreaks
of the storm.

Whoever has not seen the place where I now was at a time like the
one I am describing knows nothing whatsoever about it.  There is no
other place in the whole of the world where the advent of doomsday
will be awaited with greater trepidation.  The sky will then, as
now, become "as black as sackcloth", the lightning flash, the
thunder crack and people bow their heads in fear and trembling.
How those old elder bushes writhe as they resist the storm's
ravages.  They shriek and groan like living beings at the end of
their tether.  Not like other trees and bushes do they rustle in
the rain.  The earth laps up the constant streams of water
trickling down the topsy-turvy gravestones with a grateful and
uncanny gurgle.  Today is the day of the Lord; today is truly a
"destruction from the Almighty".

We searched for a sheltered corner where we might, to some extent,
find refuge from the fury of the storm and could only find it in
the part of the cemetery where Mahalath was buried.  There I spoke
to the old man and told him everything without holding anything
back.  I told him the story of my friendship with Jemimah right
from the beginning.  As clearly and distinctly as I could I told
him of our meetings with each other.  I would have willingly
accounted for each hour and every minute we had spent together.

He let me speak without once interrupting me.  When I came to the
end of my story, having, by then, run out of breath, he stroked my
hair and forehead with his hard and bony hand.

"Your heart is a good one, my son, and I am as glad for your sake
as I am for Jemimah's that you have spoken to me as you have.  It
is a fine thing for a conscience to be easy to arouse and for it
not to need to hear, in order to be woken, the clarion calls of an
avenging angel.  I am grateful to you for coming here like this to
pour out your heart to me.  You need not fear that I will reproach
you with angry words.  Whoever walks among these stones, whoever
breathes the air in this place, learns to look with tolerance on
both the deeds and misdeeds of his fellow men.  There are worse
things you could have told me and I, in my turn, could have shown
you graves here under which even more terrible secrets lie buried
or to which rumours of such secrets have attached themselves.
Thank God that you do not belong to the ranks of the wicked who,
after causing irreparable harm, laugh and scoff and earn great
notoriety because of it.  You have only been frivolous and
thoughtless.  What yesterday was still a game is now in deadly
earnest.  A spark can grow into a flame before we realise it and
then we beat it down as anxiously and urgently as we can but find
ourselves unable to extinguish it.  Poor wee Jemimah!  She's always
been a square peg in a round hole, even when she was younger.  I
should never have allowed her to turn this terrible garden of mine
into her playground.  Why did I need, old fool that I am, to keep
her by my side through so many summer days just to tell her the
stories of these headstones the way other children get told fairy
tales about pixies and dwarves?  Woe is me, for whose fault is it
if it is so?  But such things cannot be.  Half of her hasn't grown
up yet and we can still make amends for our sins of omission.  What
does she have to do with the dead anyway?  Just because I was only
able to live here, within these walls, I shut her young soul up in
here with me, and, in doing so, kept her safe from all the dirt
outside in the street, but it meant that only here did she see the
light of day and the flowers that bloom in the spring.  A sun that
shines on corpses!  Elder flowers growing on graves!  But she'll
never set foot here again.  She'll leave and see life as other
children do.  She won't die, will she?  Because of us?  Because of
me?"

I could not answer him.  A red flash of lightning broke over our
heads and, once again, a thunderbolt came crashing in its wake.


"You too, my boy, should never set foot here again," the old man
went on.  "It won't do you any good either!  You too are too young
to breathe the air here.  If you're still in Prague tomorrow, curse
your luck and depart immediately.  That's my advice!"

"You want to separate me from her?  Now you want to separate me
from her?" I shouted.  "That's no good.  That won't help to cure
her.  You too, old man, are ignorant of the ways of the living.
For the love of God, do not separate me from her.  What good can it
do to drive me away from her now?"

"We have no choice," said the old man, now more himself again.
"You are no less sick than the girl herself.  Healing lies in
separation for the one as for the other."

I had no weapons against that cruel old man.  He threatened, he
cajoled and I finally gave in to him, even though I knew that it
was not a good thing to do, and so I killed my poor Jemimah from
the Josephstown, and that is why the elderflower, which to
everybody else gives so much pleasure, is, for me, the flower of
death and judgement.

I fled but I could not flee from myself.  I shut my ears in order
not to hear the plaintive voice that called me back to Prague yet
could not help but hear it day and night.

The following winter I studied in Berlin and, what at first sight
must appear unlikely, genuinely studied.  I doubt that the pursuit
of any branch of learning save the study of mankind's afflictions
and infirmities would have been possible for me from that moment
on.  Such study had, of necessity, to agree with me and with
masochistic pleasure I gave myself up to it completely and managed
to derive therefrom a certain peace of mind.  Afterwards they told
me it had been a long, hard winter; I was scarcely aware of the
snow and the blizzards and the frost.  Only with the renewed onset
of spring did I awake from this wretched condition, but it was no
healthy awakening, more of a sudden jolt forward impelled by the
touch of a cold and ghostly hand.

When I finally scrambled, shocked and shaken, to my feet, I saw
that there was nobody there.

It happened on the ninth day of May, 1820, a Sunday.  I was sitting
in a park near the Schoenhaus Gate without quite knowing how I came
to be there.  All around me the springtime clientele of an outdoor
cafe were enjoying themselves.  Children played, old people
chattered, loving couples communicated in a language all their own
through looks or through whispers.  I sat alone at my table gazing
dreamily at my glass and felt as cold as ice.  How happy I had been
in former times to be surrounded by such joyful goings-on and how
little I cared for such things now.

Not far from the half-hidden place where I was sitting a girl began
to laugh, a high-pitched, hearty, long guffaw.  I was back in the
old Jewish graveyard in Prague, the sun was shining through the
elder trees and there, behind the tomb of Rabbi Judah Loew ben
Bezalel, my lovely Jemimah was making fun of me and her pretty
face and body seemed to hover in mid air over a moss-covered
headstone.  When I looked up, of course, the mirage had vanished.
I asked the waiter to tell me what day it was and repeated the date
to myself in amazement when he told me.

Now, for the first time, I stood up and looked around me.  The
trees were all either green or covered in blossoms.  The air was
warm.  The sky was clear.  Winter had changed into spring without
my noticing.  To many people such things are beautiful and many
poets, for instance, have told of them with rapture.  That strong
feeling of consternation that takes one by surprise when one wakes
up in this way is a good and profitable source of inspiration for a
poem.  This unperceived passing of time is, in my book, however,
one of the least palatable things that one has, from time to time,
to reflect on in life.

The elder trees too were in flower above me, all around me.  The
newly opened buds were already coming into blossom, robed in white
and ruddy raiment, and the blossoms were being slightly, ever so
slightly, agitated by a moving of the wind amid the bright green
leaves.  The following day I was on my way to Prague having fought
hard but fruitlessly against the voice that was calling me back
there.

I travelled night and day, but as there were no steam trains then,
those trains that seem to us nowadays to creep along so slowly that
their speed defies description, it was only during the afternoon of
the fifteenth day of May that I finally reached the town that I was
so afraid of reaching and already, in the distance, a collective
chiming of festive church bells heralded the turmoil in which I was
shortly to find myself.  The following day was the feast day of that
great patron saint of Bohemia, St John Nepomuk, and whole villages
were walking in procession with crosses, banners, censers and holy
pictures, singing ancient hymns all in praise of the poor father
confessor of Queen Joan, all on their way to the centre of Prague
as I was.  The old grey town itself was virtually unrecognizable.
All the houses were adorned, including their gable ends, with
greenery, floral tributes and carpets.  Everywhere preparations
were underway for candlelight processions.  The streets and squares
of the town were practically impassable and, like a swimmer caught
by a strong undertow, one had to fight against the forward movement
of the crowd in order not to lose one's direction.

After a great deal of effort I finally obtained accommodation at
the 'Golden Goose' in the Horse Market, subsequently known as
Wenceslas Square.

The room assigned to me in this hostinec was not notable for its
spaciousness and even less so for its view.  Its one and only
window overlooked a long courtyard hemmed in on all sides by tall
buildings and balconies.  A terrible tangle of carts and waggons
pressing in on one another had arisen despite which room was still
being found for plush and fashionable carriages of the latest
design, only just now rolling up, from whence issued a constant
stream of late arrivals decked out in the most bizarre and
colourful of costumes.  Coachmen and stable boys were swearing like
troopers in Czech and German.  Women and children were screeching
and howling in every key conceivable.  Peasants, town folk and the
military endeavoured to make it easier for the ladies to step out
of the carriages, or, as sometimes happened in certain cases, more
difficult.

Directly opposite my window a tailor had just put the finishing
touches to a high-days-and-holidays pair of trousers, for which an
anxious customer was no doubt waiting, and was now blowing on a
hunting horn his own good-natured proclamation of seasonal
merriment out of his own window.  Just at that moment all the bells
in Prague started once again to ring out in harmony and I leaned
against the frame of my upstairs window in more of a daze than
ever.

I was just about to close it so as not to succumb to the strong
smell of sweat exuded by the crowd when my eye beheld a shape the
sight of which brought me to my senses immediately.

In a circle of laughing Bohemians and Germans stood a Jewish pedlar
with a bundle of brightly coloured kerchieves and ribbons which he
was offering for sale to the women and girls alighting from the
carriages.  I recognized the man right away: it was Baruch Loew,
Jemimah's father, and one minute later I was standing in front of
him and holding his arm in a vice-like grip.

"Is it still going?  Is it still going strong?  It hasn't packed up
yet?  You haven't buried it like Mahalath's, have you?"

"What the devil!" cried the street hawker, taken aback by being
accosted so crazily.  "What's up?"

Then he knew me and, naturally enough, thought only of the watch I
had once left in hock at his house and never been back to reclaim.
He looked me in the face with an apologetic smile.

"Blow me down with a feather if it isn't that handsome clever clogs
of a medical student.  Well, this is a surprise and no mistake.
Why shouldn't it still be going strong then?  It keeps time to the
minute even now, but I'm sorry to say I don't have it any more.
What can I do for you apart from that?"

I pushed the man out of the courtyard of the 'Golden Goose' into
the site of the old horse fair.  There I repeated my question to
him, mentioning his daughter by name, and now his face altered so
dramatically, and he looked at me so stunned and stony-faced and
crestfallen that there was no need to wait for his answer.  A
procession that was even then making its way over that very spot
separated us from each other and I apathetically allowed myself to
be shoved, dragged along and borne away by the crowd.

In the Jewish quarter it was as quiet as the grave.  The silence
was unnerving.  Once again I rang the bell at the entrance to Beth
Chaim and once again a grille was opened in the gate and the
wrinkled, nearly centenarian face of the guardian of this 'house of
life' appeared in the opening and, at the same time, the bolt was
pulled back.

"So it's you!" said the old man.  "I knew that somehow I'd see you
again.  Come through!"

He walked in front of me and I followed him down the shadowy
graveyard paths and the festive exultations of a thousand
clamouring voices in the great city of Prague were blotted out by
the silence.  The elder flowers in bloom made a splendid show over
the graves but there were no birds to sing in them.

"Have they already told you she's passed on?" said the greybeard.

I nodded and the latter continued and spoke almost word for word
like the royal psalmist of his people:  "I am like one forsaken
among the dead, like one whose joy has been removed from him.  The
loveliest flower of the field has been plucked and the voice of the
cantor is no more heard among us."

He gently took hold of my hand:  "Do not weep, my son.  What they
always say is always true: tears won't bring her back to us.
Perhaps it was wrong of me to drive you away, but who could have
said then what was right and what was wrong?  Her funeral was only
last week.  The greatest of physicians were at her bedside but were
powerless to help her.  She was right.  Her heart was too big.  Do
not hold yourself responsible for her death.  You were just as sick
as she was.  All those scholarly gentlemen agreed that she couldn't
have held out much longer at best.  Her memories of you, my son,
were joyful ones, expressed in affectionate terms of endearment.
You were a ray of sunlight in her short, dark and poverty-stricken
life.  Through you she became conversant with the blue vault of
heaven and the land of the living of which I had kept her so
fearfully ignorant.  You brought her much joy and a great deal of
happiness and a thousand blessings intended for you were on her
lips when she died.  Oh, it was a great, sad and beautiful miracle
how even her thoughts as well as the whole of her physical being
were utterly transformed.  The Lord of All knows best how to lead
His children out of darkness, out from behind prison walls into
light and freedom.  She was beautiful when she died, truly
beautiful.  I could only keep her hostage here and so the God of
the Living took her from me to be with Him forever in the real
'House of Life'.  May His name be ever glorified!"

What answer I made to the old man's words I no longer know.
"Remember the elderflower!" she had said and how I did remember it
throughout my life I have just related.  Her grave was not to be
found in the old Jewish cemetery in Josephstown for the good
emperor Joseph had forbidden any further burials to take place
there.  Mahalath's had been the last.

I have taken a long time to write down all the memories that went
through my mind as I held that garland of elderflowers in my hand
which another dead girl had worn.  Now a grieving mother took it
off me and put it back into the pretty box from which she had
taken it in the first place.

Then she laid her hand upon my shoulder:  "How grateful I am to
you, doctor, for sharing my grief so closely."

I looked at her, incapable of a reply.  The fire in the stove had
gone out and the room had grown cold.  The sun had gone down behind
the skyline.  The brightness of that winter day had faded.  I
cannot describe how heavily I felt the burden of my years weigh
down on me.

Sadder, yes, but none the worse for that, I made my way downstairs
again, past an ever-young and meditative muse, and left that quiet,
chilly, fatal house behind me.





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