“The Kiss of Death (The Inexorable)” by Carmen Sylva

Chillundity by the Queen of Romania.
⁓The Voice before the Void

“The Kiss of Death (The Inexorable)”

Carmen Sylva

translated from the German by Helen Zimmern

The sea was running high and was black as night. Only the crests of the endless waves glistened in the lightning that flashed across the heavens. The storm was raging towards the land and threw the ships upon the rocks, so that hundreds of human lives perished in the ocean. Then of a sudden it seemed as though the storm grew entangled among the cliffs on the shore, and condensed into a form that reared up tall and pale against the mighty heavens. It was a grave youth with unflinching black eyes, who leaned upon a sickle and held an hour-glass in his hand. He gazed across the waters with an indifferent air, as though the wrecks, and corpses beneath, concerned him as little as the sand in his glass, which trickled down evenly, steadily, regardless of the blustering of the storm, or the sudden quiet. There was something iron-like in the youth’s features, in his eyes there lay a power that destroyed all things they looked upon; even the ocean seemed to be numbed by them, and to grow silent with fear. Day dawned, and flooded with roseate hues from the rising sun. Sorrow came stepping over the cliffs. She stretched out her arms to the youth.

“Brother,” she cried, “brother, what have you done! You have raged terribly, and did not hear how I called you, ay, cried for you so eagerly.”

“I heard nothing,” said Death. “I felt myself too quiet, so I roused myself. A few vessels were lost in the act.”

“O pitiless one!” said Sorrow.

“I do not comprehend your grief,” answered the somber youth; and turning from her, he walked away. He paced silently through the sunny world; it blew chill around him, and wherever he paused a silent shudder seized all things. He went by a house and looked in. There lay a man tortured with pain who beheld him and called him imploringly; but he only shook his head and went further. A lovely young woman stood in her garden surrounded by joyous children, her husband had just stepped up to her and kissed her. The pale wanderer laid his hand on her shoulder and beckoned to her; she followed him a few steps and sank lifeless to the ground.

Then he came to a forest in which a pale man was pacing hither and thither, tearing his hair and gnashing his teeth, crying—

“Dishonored, dishonored!”

He saw the passer-by with the somber eyes, saw him lift his white hand and point to a tree. The despairing man understood the signal.

He passed a group of playing children, and softly mowed the grass between their feet with his scythe. Then they bowed their heads like broken flowerets.

There an old man sat in an armchair, and was enjoying the warming sunbeams. Death raised his hour-glass and held it before his eyes—the last sands were running down.

He halted by a stagnant pool. No water could be seen, for it was covered with green. The rushes quivered under his cold breath, and the toad that had been croaking grew silent. Then the reeds rustled and a lovely woman drew close to the water, took something from a handkerchief and threw it down. It sank with a faint gurgle into the depths. Twice she made a movement as though she would spring in after it, but each time Death extended his scythe towards her, and she fled terrified. He lifted his hour-glass in which the sand ran down quickly, hurriedly. Then something white came up between the green water-plants, and with wide-open eyes a little corpse appeared, gazing at the running sand.

Then Death went further, and across a battle-field, where he mowed down many fine men.

At last he came to a lovely valley in which autumn was reigning in all its glory. The trees were bathed in gleaming gold, the sward beneath was a luscious green, strewn with tender flowers. A silvery laugh came from the branches through which a charming little figure was floating, now hiding among the leaves, now jumping down upon the grass, and at last running with lightsome step, and garments streaming in the breeze, to meet a stately man who stood leaning on a club beside a hillock.

“Come to me, fair Happiness,” he cried aloud. “You must go with me. You are mine, for I am Courage.”

“Must I?” said the sweet little form, and turned her back to him.

As she did so her eyes, full of beaming wantonness and measureless roguery, turned towards the pale pilgrim. He saw the dimples that played on her chin and cheeks, her neck and her arm. Her whole slender figure was inwrapt by her light floating locks, which were moved by the softest breeze, and which looked in the sunshine like falling gold-dust.

“Yes,” cried Courage, “you must, for you love me. I have found that out.”

“I love you in this fair valley, and that is why I give you smiles; but if you must go out into the world, you must go alone. There stands one who has never yet spoken with me, and he looks as if he too needed the gift of smiling.”

“You can’t give it to him,” said Courage. “Do not try. You will only hurt yourself with his scythe.”

But Happiness had already run up to the Inexorable.

“Shall I teach you how to smile, you serious youth? You seem to need it.”

“Yes, I could use it, for all behold me unwillingly, and no one goes with me unless he is obliged, and it is because I cannot smile.”

“Yes,” said Happiness, and she grew quite timid; “but in order to teach you smiling, I must kiss you. That does not seem to me so hard, only your eyes terrify me.”

“Then I will close them,” said Death.

“No, no, you are so pale, I shall be still more afraid; and your scythe, too, is so sharp and cold.”

“Then I will throw it from me.”

And he threw his scythe far away; it grazed the trees as it fell. Then their golden foliage fell to earth, and all the branches grew bare, and as the scythe sank into the grass it grew covered with rime, and the flowers hung down their crowns.

“Oh, you have spoilt my garden with your ugly scythe,” cried Happiness; “and I was going to make you such a lovely present.”

“I did not want to do it, but the scythe flew out of my hand, and now I am much sadder because I have grieved you. You can find new gardens, but no one can teach me how to smile.”

“You shall learn, notwithstanding,” said the fair maiden, and she stepped close to him; but as often as her rosy lips approached him she grew so cold that she fell back shuddering. Then he looked at her imploringly without raising his hand, as if he feared to hurt her by a touch; but his gaze held her spellbound like a great power, and she had to kiss him. But at the moment that her lips touched him his cold sank deep into her heart, and she fell dead to the earth. Courage sprang angrily at the pale youth.

“You have murdered my Happiness.”

“Was she yours?” asked Death, and sighed; “then go after her; there she floats.”

Following the indication of his hand, Courage saw how the soft breezes were tenderly bearing away Happiness upon their wings, like to a light cloudlet. Courage hurried after them with powerful steps, keeping his eyes ever fixed on that rosy cloud.

Death stood and gazed until he felt quite warm within, and a tear ran slowly down his pale cheeks. He had to learn for himself, what as yet he knew not, how it hurts if we chase away Happiness.

When nothing more could be seen but bare trees, faded grass, and withered flowers, he lifted his scythe and looked sadly around the valley, as though he expected it would all bloom again. But the earth remained dead and stark, so he turned once more to the sea. That was rolling its eternal tides upwards and downwards, as indifferent as ever. But he who stood above and looked down was no longer indifferent. He thought of the maiden whom he had hurt, and his yearning was as great as the ocean at his feet. And this yearning transfigured him to wondrous beauty. Thus he was seen of a pale maiden with unkempt hair and torn garments. She fell at his feet; but he was terrified by her, and drew back a pace.

“Do you no longer know me?” said the maiden. “You used to know me well, and you knew that I perished for yearning after you. I am Despair. Have you forgotten that you promised to kiss me, to give me one single kiss? It would be happiness for ever.”

The youth’s eyes grew dark as night, and his voice sounded stern as he said—

“And you dare to speak of happiness? Do you know what happiness is? If you come near it only once may you be turned to stone!”

“And if I were to turn to stone, yet I implore for a kiss from your mouth.”

The youth shuddered and thought of the lips that had touched his and taught him to smile, and as he thought of them he smiled. When the maiden at his feet saw this, she threw her arms about his neck, and laid her head on his breast. She did not see the hate and loathing that flashed from his eyes, but the next moment a hideous skeleton grinned at her, and nearly crushed her in his bony arms, and a death’s-head kissed her.

Then the earth trembled and opened. Cities vanished, fire streamed forth from mountains, forests were uprooted, rocks flew through the air, the sky was on fire, and the sea rolled in upon the land. When all was still again, Despair reared above the waters, an image of stone. Death rushed away as a storm wind to pursue the rosy cloud under this disguise.