In this custom of severing the head from near relatives there was to me, indeed, something awful; nevertheless, I ventured to say nothing against it, through fear of offending the Unknown. I told him, therefore, that I was well acquainted with the art of embalming the dead, and asked him to lead me to the body. Notwithstanding,
I could not keep myself from inquiring why all this must be done so secretly in the night. He answered me that his relations, who considered his purpose inhuman, would prevent him from accomplishing it by day; but only let the head once be cut off, and they could say little more about it: he could, indeed, have brought the head to me, but a natural feeling prevented him from cutting it off himself.
These words brought us to a large splendid house; my companion pointed it out to me as the termination of our nocturnal walk. We passed the principal door, and entering a small gate, which the stranger carefully closed after him, ascended, in the dark, a narrow, winding staircase. This brought us to a dimly-lighted corridor, from which we entered an apartment; a lamp, suspended from the ceiling, shed its brilliant rays around.
In this chamber stood a bed, on which lay the corpse; the Unknown turned away his face, as if wishing to conceal his tears. He beckoned me to the bed, and bidding me set about my business speedily yet carefully, went out by the door.
I seized my knives, which, as a physician, I constantly carried with me, and approached the bed. Only the head of the corpse was visible, but that was so beautiful that the deepest compassion involuntarily came over me. In long braids the dark hair hung down; the face was pale, the eyes closed. At first, I made an incision in the skin, according to the practice of surgeons when they remove a limb. Then I took my sharpest knife and cut entirely through the throat. But, horror! the dead opened her eyes—shut them again—and in a deep sigh seemed now, for the first time, to breathe forth her life! Straightway a stream of hot blood sprang forth from the wound. I was convinced that I had killed the poor girl;
for that she was dead there could be no doubt—from such a wound there was no chance of recovering. I stood some moments in anxious wo, thinking on what had happened. Had the Red-mantle deceived me, or was his sister, perhaps, only apparently dead? The latter appeared to me more probable. Yet I dared not tell the brother of the deceased, that, perhaps, a less rash blow would have aroused, without having killed her; therefore I began to sever the head entirely—but once again the dying one groaned, stretched herself out in a convulsion of pain, and breathed her last. Then terror overpowered me, and I rushed shivering out of the apartment.
But outside in the corridor it was dark, for the lamp had died out; no trace of my companion was perceptible, and I was obliged to move along by the wall, at hazard in the dark, in order to reach the winding-stairs. I found them at last, and descended, half falling, half gliding. There was no one below; the door was only latched, and I breathed more freely when I was in the street, out of the uneasy atmosphere of the house. Spurred on by fear, I ran to my dwelling, and buried myself in the pillow of my bed, in order to forget the horrid crime I had committed. But sleep fled my eyelids, and soon morning admonished me again to collect myself. It seemed probable to me, that the man who had led me to this villainous deed, as it now appeared to me, would not denounce me. I immediately resolved to attend to my business in my shop, and to put on as careless an air as possible. But, alas! a new misfortune, which I now for the first time observed, augmented my sorrow. My cap and girdle, as also my knives, were missing; and I knew not whether they had been left in the chamber of the dead, or lost during my flight. Alas! the former seemed more probable, and they could discover in me the murderer.
I opened my shop at the usual time; a neighbor stepped in, as was his custom, being a communicative man. “Ah! what say you to the horrid deed,” he cried, “that was committed last night?” I started as if I knew nothing. “How! know you not that with which the whole city is filled? Know you not that last night, the fairest flower in Florence, Bianca, the daughter of the Governor, was murdered? Ah! only yesterday I saw her walking happily through the streets with her bridegroom, for to-day she would have had her nuptial festival!”
Every word of my neighbor was a dagger to my heart; and how often returned my torments! for each of my customers told me the story, one more frightfully than another; yet not one could tell it half so horribly as it had seemed to me. About mid-day, an officer of justice unexpectedly walked into my shop, and asked me to clear it of the bystanders.
“Signor Zaleukos,” said he, showing me the articles I had lost, “belong these things to you?” I reflected whether I should not entirely disown them; but when I saw through the half-opened door, my landlord and several acquaintances, who could readily testify against me, I determined not to make the matter worse by a falsehood, and acknowledged the articles exhibited as my own. The officer told me to follow him, and conducted me to a spacious building, which I soon recognised as the prison. Then, a little farther on, he showed me into an apartment.
My situation was terrible, as I reflected on it in my solitude. The thought of having committed a murder, even against my wish, returned again and again. Moreover, I could not conceal from myself that the glance of the gold had dazzled my senses; otherwise I would not have fallen so blindly into the snare.