Poet Lore/Volume 4/Number 10/Newton's Brain

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Jakub Arbes3293339Poet Lore, vol. 4, no. 10 — Newton's Brain1892Josef Jiří Král


By Jakub Arbes


But lo! what is that?

Does it not seem to me as though I were listening to gentle sounds of music, and as though a clear stream of light had flitted before me? I rub my eyes, and try to get up. In a few moments I succeed.

I see that I am standing in an arched corridor; there is a door, only half shut, in front of me, and a stream of light comes in through the opening. I really hear music. I advance staggering toward the door. Through the opening I look into a brightly illuminated hall. But my eyes are so dim that I cannot distinguish anything in the hall. But my consciousness is returning. I try to advance, but I stagger again, and have to lean against the wall. In that position I remained about five minutes; then I opened the door a little more, and glanced into the hall.

I now first became fully satisfied that I was standing at the secret door so well known to me, and that the music I heard was coming from the hall, where I saw a considerable number of guests. But how it could have happened that I had wandered for about three hours, as it seemed to me, in the simplest labyrinth of four corridors forming a regular parallelogram; that I had been unable to find the door which was so near,—this I could not explain. At that time, however, I did not trouble myself about solving the enigma; my unusual excitement had not yet ceased, and I was curious, too, to learn who was in the hall, and what would happen next. Putting off my overcoat, and throwing away my hat, I slipped through the door, and remained standing on the sill, leaning against the door-posts.

The large, high hall was splendidly decorated, and illuminated with numberless lights, so that a person could find a grain of poppy-seed on the floor. The first look convinced me that there was a large and rare company assembled, but a company of men only.

There may have been about two hundred persons in the hall. They sat at tables which were so arranged in a half-circle that a person could easily walk around each table, and from each one could see a black curtain, reaching from the ceiling to the floor, and dividing off a part of the hall. A number of servants were waiting on the guests; others were busy bringing the most varied meats and drinks on silver plates. I was unable to discover where the band of music was placed, but I heard distinctly the soft sounds of a melancholy piece. The band was undoubtedly either in a recess or in some adjoining room. The hall was full of a gentle noise; I heard the murmur of the guests, and the half-stifled calls of the lackeys; but to me all this was one unintelligible rustle, as when a distant waterfall disturbs the silence of the night.

No one seemed to notice me at first, and I was at full liberty to observe the guests. Though I did not know, except by name, a great many of the prominent citizens of Prague, yet I soon found out that the company assembled was a choice one.

Recollecting that the Kinskýs were co-operating with the father of my friend, I was not surprised to see a number of noblemen at one or two of the tables. I recognized one of the Princes Lobkovic, two Waldštýns, a Count of Thurn and Taxis, two Kaunices, the old Count Hanuš of Kolovrat, the Rohans, etc.,—noblemen nearly all of whom had frequently been guests of the Kinskýs in the past. All these, and others whose names I did not know, were seated at one end of the half-circle of tables.

Neither was I surprised to find, at the opposite end of the half-circle, Prince Schwarzenberg, the Archbishop of Prague, two canons, the Abbot of Strahov, the generals of the Knights of the Cross and of the Maltese order, the Provost of Vyšehrad, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries; at the next table I saw the parsons of St. Nicholas and of Smichov, and several other divines whom I did not know.

Next to the tables of the noblemen there were two or three tables where civil and military officers, Bohemian and German deputies, and governmental and city officials of various sorts, were sitting. Then followed other guests, whom I classed as savants and university professors; for I had recognized some of my former teachers among them.

In the Bohemian literary world I knew—at that time—only Pfleger, who was related to my friend, and our beloved poet Neruda, who had been my teacher and my friend’s. Both of them, and many others, I found among the guests, engaged in a lively discourse.

Our friends who failed to come to the inn when I invited them were also present, and sat at a table near by that of the men of letters.

I might perhaps have recognized many other prominent personages, had I not been interrupted in my observations. One of the lackeys, passing by, stopped before me. I recognized an old acquaintance of my early years, when I used to be almost an everyday guest in the castle or in the park.

“Come, at last!” he said, in a low voice; and his gray, deep-set little eyes glittered with a peculiar flame. “I must instantly announce that you have arrived. Please step down into the hall, and take a seat at the middle table.” He pointed to the table where our friends were seated.

“Why at that table, exactly?” I asked.

“Because it has been so ordered,” answered the poor fellow, who had been doing nothing else during all his life but obeying orders.

“But why?”

“I do not know, and I need not know. But it cannot be otherwise. Look how the guests are seated. There noblemen sit in a group; opposite them are the divines; here are the officials, and so forth. ‘Each to his fellows,’ was our motto. Thus there are seated in separate groups the physicians, lawyers, philosophers, architects, sculptors, actors, opera-singers, painters, musicians, authors, and so on; even the people that have no calling are seated together.”

“But why all this? No such ceremonies have ever been observed here!” I remarked.

“They were not, that is true; this time, however, it has been so ordered,” the lackey retorted. “Please,” he added, in the pleading tone in which only a nobleman’s servant knows how to beg without expressing his request in words. While speaking, he pointed again to the table where my friends were sitting.

“Well, I shall obey the order, and take my seat accordingly, to spare you trouble,” I said, softened, and walked to the table assigned me, while the lackey went through the hall and quickly disappeared through the main entrance.

The guests paid little or no attention to me. Some turned their heads; others glanced at me; but not having seen me coming in by the main door, they probably thought that I had left the table before and was now returning. Some shook hands with me; others greeted me with a kind smile or a bow of the head.

But before I sat down the gentle music had changed into a deafening fanfare. A few moments later the flourish ceased, a greater part of the lights were turned out, and as the black curtain was being drawn, we heard a sonorous voice, saying,—

“The performance begins!”

The eyes of all present were fixed upon the curtain. When the curtain was fully drawn I beheld a platform covered with a black cloth. On the platform stood a low catafalque, supporting a metallic coffin. Around the coffin there was a multitude of beautiful exotic flowers. Large candles were burning on both sides of the coffin. At its head there lay a large laurel wreath; farther down was an officer’s hat and sabre; and at the foot, in front, was this simple epitaph:—

Frederick Wünscher,
Imp. Royal First Lieutenant.
Born on the 7th of July, 1841.
Died on the 7th of July, 1866.

There was a general surprise.

A stillness so great that the least whisper could have been easily heard spread over the hall. After a few moments the silence was broken by sad, touching voices singing the well-known song of Salve Regina,’ seemingly coming from afar, perhaps from some of the adjoining rooms.

No one spoke a word as long as the singing lasted. Even after the singing ceased, and a dead stillness filled the hall again, no one moved or stirred. Doubtless, for the moment there was no one in the hall, except myself, who was conscious that all this was nothing more than an original opening of an escamoteur’s performance.

The archbishop rose first of all; evidently he was the most impatient. But at the same moment the lid of the coffin flew up with a din, and remained hanging inthe air between the floor and the ceiling, just as they say the lid is hovering above Mohammed’s coffin.

In the uncovered coffin I saw a dead body in the uniform of a military officer. Standing too far off, however, I could not distinctly see the features of the face.

The hall was still buried in silence.

First, after several minutes, one of the guests arose at the table where the physicians and men of science were seated. I at once recognized the expressive face of Dr. Sperlich, of Smíchov.

“Let us examine the corpse!” he said, and walked briskly to the catafalque. His colleagues followed. Then the engineers and the architects arose, then others,—the philosophers and the divines were the last. In a few moments the catafalque was surrounded by nearly all the guests. Only a few of the physicians stood close to the coffin; all the others looked on from a safe distance, hence it was not difficult for me to get near. Standing at the head of the corpse, I fastened my eyes upon the pale, set face. It was the same face which I had seen at Nechanice after the battle of Königgrätz. Its likeness to the face of my friend was so striking that after looking awhile at the cold features, I could not help believing that I saw the dead body of my friend.

Translated from the Bohemian by Josef Jiří Král.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1951, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 72 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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