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The Conclave Of Corpses






Source: Folk-lore And Legends: German

Some three hundred years since, when the convent of Kreutzberg was in
its glory, one of the monks who dwelt therein, wishing to ascertain
something of the hereafter of those whose bodies lay all undecayed in
the cemetery, visited it alone in the dead of night for the purpose of
prosecuting his inquiries on that fearful subject. As he opened the
trap-door of the vault a light burst from below; but deeming it to be
only the lamp of the sacristan, the monk drew back and awaited his
departure concealed behind the high altar. The sacristan emerged not,
however, from the opening; and the monk, tired of waiting, approached,
and finally descended the rugged steps which led into the dreary
depths. No sooner had he set foot on the lowermost stair, than the
well-known scene underwent a complete transformation in his eyes. He
had long been accustomed to visit the vault, and whenever the
sacristan went thither, he was almost sure to be with him. He
therefore knew every part of it as well as he did the interior of his
own narrow cell, and the arrangement of its contents was perfectly
familiar to his eyes. What, then, was his horror to perceive that this
arrangement, which even but that morning had come under his
observation as usual, was altogether altered, and a new and wonderful
one substituted in its stead.

A dim lurid light pervaded the desolate abode of darkness, and it just
sufficed to give to his view a sight of the most singular description.

On each side of him the dead but imperishable bodies of the
long-buried brothers of the convent sat erect in their lidless
coffins, their cold, starry eyes glaring at him with lifeless
rigidity, their withered fingers locked together on their breasts,
their stiffened limbs motionless and still. It was a sight to petrify
the stoutest heart; and the monk's quailed before it, though he was a
philosopher, and a sceptic to boot. At the upper end of the vault, at
a rude table formed of a decayed coffin, or something which once
served the same purpose, sat three monks. They were the oldest corses
in the charnel-house, for the inquisitive brother knew their faces
well; and the cadaverous hue of their cheeks seemed still more
cadaverous in the dim light shed upon them, while their hollow eyes
gave forth what looked to him like flashes of flame. A large book lay
open before one of them, and the others bent over the rotten table as
if in intense pain, or in deep and fixed attention. No word was said;
no sound was heard; the vault was as silent as the grave, its awful
tenants still as statues.

Fain would the curious monk have receded from this horrible place;
fain would he have retraced his steps and sought again his cell; fain
would he have shut his eyes to the fearful scene; but he could not
stir from the spot, he felt rooted there; and though he once succeeded
in turning his eyes to the entrance of the vault, to his infinite
surprise and dismay he could not discover where it lay, nor perceive
any possible means of exit. He stood thus for some time. At length the
aged monk at the table beckoned him to advance. With slow tottering
steps he made his way to the group, and at length stood in front of
the table, while the other monks raised their heads and glanced at him
with a fixed, lifeless look that froze the current of his blood. He
knew not what to do; his senses were fast forsaking him; Heaven seemed
to have deserted him for his incredulity. In this moment of doubt and
fear he bethought him of a prayer, and as he proceeded he felt himself
becoming possessed of a confidence he had before unknown. He looked on
the book before him. It was a large volume, bound in black, and
clasped with bands of gold, with fastenings of the same metal. It was
inscribed at the top of each page

"Liber Obedientiae."

He could read no further. He then looked, first in the eyes of him
before whom it lay open, and then in those of his fellows. He finally
glanced around the vault on the corpses who filled every visible
coffin in its dark and spacious womb. Speech came to him, and
resolution to use it. He addressed himself to the awful beings in
whose presence he stood, in the words of one having authority with
them.

"Pax vobis," 'twas thus he spake--"Peace be to ye."

"Hic nulla pax," replied an aged monk, in a hollow, tremulous tone,
baring his breast the while--"Here is no peace."

He pointed to his bosom as he spoke, and the monk, casting his eye
upon it, beheld his heart within surrounded by living fire, which
seemed to feed on it but not consume it. He turned away in affright,
but ceased not to prosecute his inquiries.

"Pax vobis, in nomine Domini," he spake again--"Peace be to ye, in
the name of the Lord."

"Hic non pax," the hollow and heartrending tones of the ancient monk
who sat at the right of the table were heard to answer.

On glancing at the bared bosom of this hapless being also the same
sight was exhibited--the heart surrounded by a devouring flame, but
still remaining fresh and unconsumed under its operation. Once more
the monk turned away and addressed the aged man in the centre.

"Pax vobis, in nomine Domini," he proceeded.

At these words the being to whom they were addressed raised his head,
put forward his hand, and closing the book with a loud clap, said--

"Speak on. It is yours to ask, and mine to answer."

The monk felt reassured, and his courage rose with the occasion.

"Who are ye?" he inquired; "who may ye be?"

"We know not!" was the answer, "alas! we know not!"

"We know not, we know not!" echoed in melancholy tones the denizens of
the vault.

"What do ye here?" pursued the querist.

"We await the last day, the day of the last judgment! Alas for us!
woe! woe!"

"Woe! woe!" resounded on all sides.

The monk was appalled, but still he proceeded.

"What did ye to deserve such doom as this? What may your crime be that
deserves such dole and sorrow?"

As he asked the question the earth shook under him, and a crowd of
skeletons uprose from a range of graves which yawned suddenly at his
feet.

"These are our victims," answered the old monk. "They suffered at our
hands. We suffer now, while they are at peace; and we shall suffer."

"For how long?" asked the monk.

"For ever and ever!" was the answer.

"For ever and ever, for ever and ever!" died along the vault.

"May God have mercy on us!" was all the monk could exclaim.

The skeletons vanished, the graves closing over them. The aged men
disappeared from his view, the bodies fell back in their coffins, the
light fled, and the den of death was once more enveloped in its usual
darkness.

On the monk's revival he found himself lying at the foot of the altar.
The grey dawn of a spring morning was visible, and he was fain to
retire to his cell as secretly as he could, for fear he should be
discovered.

From thenceforth he eschewed vain philosophy, says the legend, and,
devoting his time to the pursuit of true knowledge, and the extension
of the power, greatness, and glory of the Church, died in the odour of
sanctity, and was buried in that holy vault, where his body is still
visible.

Requiescat in pace!





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