Severin's Journey into The Dark (Paul Leppin, 1914)
A high-pitched scream, and an “I’ve got you at last!” echoed in the auditorium drowned in dark.
Muffled laughter filled the vast empty space. Then light appeared: someone lit a match. The flame revealed the faces of a wide-smiling man and a young woman with reddened cheeks.
“You’re such a stupid fool, Stefan,” the girl said, not altogether disapprovingly.
Stefan grinned. “Couldn’t resist, Hanna! It’s spooky here in the middle of the night, isn’t it?”
Her face grew serious. “No, it’s not. There’s nothing to fear here. Come on, we’ve got a job to do.”
“You still don’t believe I can do it.”
“Let’s see,” she said diplomatically.
Stefan drew a deep breath. “Fine. Would you do as I say?”
“Unless I think you’ve got some ulterior motives.”
He ignored her remark, ignited another match, and lit a small candle. Then another one. He continued until a circle of candles surrounded them on the stage. Hanna scrunched her nose. The candles exuded a strange smell, but not an unpleasant one. It resembled freshly mown grass. The color was unusual too, a deep olive-green.
Meanwhile, Stefan began drawing on the boards. The chalk scratched on wood with high cadence, fast and resolute. Hanna watched the circle infused with myriad symbols close in around them.
“Done,” Stefan exhaled. “Sit down opposite me.”
Hanna complied, trying to set her doubts aside. It would be simply a foolish adventure. God knows we need some these days!
Grandmother had always told her fantastical tales of ghosts and poltergeists haunting theatres, especially opera houses. She told them as if she had personally witnessed them. Hanna always assumed there was a lot of imagination involved, even as a child. She loved them. But that didn’t mean she believed them.
Yes, there were a lot of stories of theatre hauntings, and perhaps some were true, but she always found it suspicious that ghosts and news of such largely stopped appearing over two decades ago.
So when Stefan proposed to summon one, she couldn’t help being somewhat skeptical.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Stefan continued. “I will say the invocation. Just …try to lure it here with your thoughts.”
Like wishing upon a star? Hanna didn’t say it aloud. Stefan always took pride in claiming that his uncle had once been an exorcist in this theatre. If the stories were true, he’d lost several years’ memory and almost his mind too in an exorcism gone awry. But there was hardly anyone who could corroborate that, and she knew well enough that Stefan could make up anything. She sighed inwardly. Why do I always fall for these types? Head in the clouds, empty pockets, boasting and swaggering, and always a handy tale to tell if a girl asks an inconvenient question …
But as he started chanting in what may have been old Greek (sounded impressive, she had to concede), she tried to focus on wishing for a ghost to come.
Stefan’s chanting continued, and Hanna grew uncomfortable. The stage felt increasingly hard and cold underneath her folded legs. She shifted in her position. And the damn draft …
Suddenly, with a chill, she looked at the candles’ flames and realized the draft was coming from the center of the pattern to all directions. Her breath caught.
Stefan uttered the last word, and heavy silence fell upon the stage. It was like the moment after a particularly powerful aria ends and everyone is too mesmerized for a fraction, before they snap out of it and start clapping. Now, for an audience of two, a special performance commenced.
A human-like shape shimmered in the center of the chalk circle.
They both remained silent. Perhaps neither believed the ritual would work. But the apparition was now so close that they could easily touch it.
Stefan raised his hand slowly and did just that. He flinched as soon as the tips of his fingers reached the outline of the misty shape.
“It’s so cold,” he breathed out.
Hanna watched the spectre with eyes wide open. “Who are you?” she whispered. Her voice resonated with emotion, barely containing it. The acoustics of the theatre carried it to the farthest reaches of the auditorium.
The spectre inclined her head—for a moment, Hanna was sure she could make out a woman’s features in the fuzzy shape—and then emitted a long high-pitched wail.
Hanna and Stefan both gave a start.
“Don’t be afraid!” Hanna cried out and instantly realized the absurdity of her words. She was telling a ghost not to be afraid. “Do you … understand us?”
But she couldn’t recognize the ghost’s face well enough to read any emotion off it. It might be friendly and start to talk… or turn against them any moment. A chill ran down her spine. How good were the protective wards Stefan had drawn around them?
The apparition just floated there. In a way, it was scarier than if it shrieked again or moved.
“We better release it,” Stefan mumbled. His face was pale as death itself even in the warm candlelight.
“How?” Hanna breathed.
“There’s another ritual, a reverse one of a sort.” Stefan straightened his back, exhaled, and started incanting again. Hanna sensed a change in the air: for a fraction, it felt warm and smelled of freshly mowed meadow, like a summer day, but this was abruptly replaced by a bone-chilling whiff carrying a stale stench of death.
All candles went out at the same moment. The apparition was gone.
A new light appeared as Stefan struck a match. Hanna would never forget his face: so awed, full of part-fear, part-excitement. It looked like a statue or a mask in the long shadows cast by the single match. Was she harboring a similar expression?
“It’s real,” she breathed and immediately felt stupid for stating the obvious. “Who … who do you think it was?”
“I have no idea,” Stefan shook his head. “Let’s get out of here. This place …”
“It feels haunted now,” Hanna finished for him and gave him a little uncertain smile.
Out in the street, it felt much safer despite the late hour. Stefan offered to walk Hanna to her flat, and she was too sensible to decline. Neither spoke for most of the way; only she finally broke the silence when they reached her street. “If the stories told by my grandma were true, ghosts usually harmed living people, even if they didn’t intend to. But… do you think you could use one as a protector spirit, a sort of a guardian angel?”
“There are some myths of that in various cultures, but I’ve never heard anything specific, or modern.” Stefan shook his head.
“If it were possible, we could try to do it. To protect us, the theatre, all good people…” Hanna fell silent for a moment. “I fear we might need it.”
Stefan embraced her. It was an utterly non-romantic, comforting, warm embrace of two lost people shivering in the darkening night.
Morning greeted them with a cacophony of raised voices. Everyone was talking about the same thing: At dawn, German troops had entered Austria. There were talks of a coup, or even annexing Austria to Germany, but no one knew anything certain at this point.
There was perhaps nobody in the theatre who hadn’t had at least a passing thought: Would we be next? Only the response it elicited differed. Most feared this happening; few had no opinion; some, however, would welcome it.
As they started preparing to try the set for the upcoming premiere of Karl V., the tension grew almost palpable. However, the scenographer Feistel held a firm grip on the works and commanded the stagehands and lighting technicians, even though he’d made it no secret that he loathed this piece.
Hanna was in the her tiny room working on the costume the wardrobe master had assigned her, when Stefan burst in. “Come. Director Eger wants to speak to everyone in the auditorium.”
Again? She bit down the remark. The director was probably trying his best to maintain professionalism within the theatre staff and motivate them. But the speeches grew more frequent—and so did tensions.
Eger stood on the stage, the ominous emperor’s deathbed behind him. Was he unusually pale and tense, or was it just sloppy work of the lighting techs, too tired of Feistel’s commands?
“We have probably all heard the news by now: the German army has crossed the Austrian border, and it may be a start of an annexation. We, for now, are safe. You may think what you want of the action, but I strongly urge you not to let it get in the way of professionalism. What is happening just outside our borders is disturbing, and we will do as much as we can to help any refugees from Austria if it comes to that.”
Hanna set her jaw. The theatre was already at the legal edge of its capacity of employing foreigners, who could comprise up to thirty percent soloists and couldn’t be employed in the chorus or orchestra, and getting a Czechoslovakian citizenship in order to gain better job prospects was near-impossible. She was still a German citizen herself. Eger may have wanted to help, but how exactly was he planning to do it?
“We can’t make decisions for politicians and don’t have the power to stop the military,” Eger continued, “but that doesn’t mean we have no power. On the contrary—we possess the power to change people’s minds through our work. We should use it wisely…”
“What is really going to happen?” a voice suddenly called out from the back. It was Felix Jentzsch, actor. “We’ve had the Schiller Theater Berlin guest-starring here just a week ago! Do we have to accept more of this German influence in order to survive? Are we going to stand up, or stand back?”
“Welcoming the Schiller Theater Berlin on our stage was a diplomatic act suggested by our government,” Eger reminded him firmly. “We are not showing any kind of support of the German political regime. Also, do I need to remind you that we had a Czech-German cultural event just the day before, or that we performed Čapek’s Mother the previous week?” He raised his voice slightly to address everyone. “We come from many different backgrounds, even speak different mother tongues, but in these times, we need to stay strong together. Our work is still needed, perhaps more than any other time. Our theatre is national, and proudly so, but it is not nationalist and never will be. Now, we have work to do!”
With that, everyone started dispersing slowly to resume their jobs.
Hanna exchanged a short glance with Stefan.
It’s going to be all right, he seemed to be saying, reassurance in his hazel eyes.
I wish, she thought. But I don’t believe it will be.
The photographic portrait of a smiling moustached man on the wall seemed to exude almost inhuman confidence and energy to Paul Eger, who himself felt exhausted and beaten.
“Six years of running the theatre, trying to live up to your example,” he said to Angelo Neumann’s picture, “and what of it? It’s crumbling down beneath my very hands.”
Eger had to overcome an almost visceral feeling of aversion before he grasped a pen and pushed himself to work. The theatre needed him, he kept reminding himself. He may not have been a second Neumann, but he was doing his best in keeping the business together. The show must go on.
“I wonder what you’d think of the theatre nowadays,” Eger sighed aloud while going through the contracts. “Fifty years’ time … We’ve even had the Meistersingers at the semicentennial. I wish you could have seen it. I dare to hope it would have made you proud.”
I’m insane, he thought for himself, talking to a photograph. But the truth was, he had no one else to talk to like this, except perhaps his wife, but he didn’t want to place all of his burdens on her.
The Meistersingers went brilliantly, but no one from the outside could see how painful process had preceded it. It was a popular comedy and the theatre’s opening play fifty years ago, so there was plentiful reason for doing it; but it was also Wagner, a choice that could hardly stand as apolitical these days. Moreover, the figure of Beckmesser elicited feelings ranging from reluctance to pure revulsion, especially among the Jewish members of the ensemble. Eger was more than happy to tone down the antisemitic original portrayal of the character, but that for a change upset several Wagner purists.
“I bet you’d had your own problems with the opera. This one just doesn’t go lightly,” Eger murmured. “It was worth it, I just wish I could consult with you, learn from your experience …”
In theory, he had reasons to be happy. The president had visited the semicentennial and promised more funding for the theatre. But the political tensions threatened to tear it apart from the inside. Thespians were never inclined to blindly follow suit and go quiet, and usually it was a good thing, but not if it made any working together increasingly more difficult. After all, political tensions were ripping apart the Brünnish scene at this very time.
Well, they should start pre-dress rehearsals of a new piece, Ernst Křenek’s Karl V., in a week; perhaps the exciting work would bring them together. It would be a world premiere of outstanding importance. Yet Eger feared it would not be an easy collaboration, especially since Křenek first intended the piece for the Vienna State Opera five years ago, but the opera house had been pressured from Germany to abandon the play, and Křenek was essentially blacklisted in Germany, and now perhaps Austria too. This would undoubtedly call the wrath of the neighboring states on the Neue deutsche Theater. The cast wasn’t satisfied either; the piece’s twelve-tonality was difficult to work with.
Eger set aside his pen and looked up at Neumann’s picture. “What would you do? I can’t just cave in and only select easy, uncontroversial pieces. We would become a trifling provincial theatre like that; it would be just a way into obscurity, against everything you and all the other directors before me had worked for. I suppose we just have to persist against all the odds, don’t we?”
The picture remained silent, smiling its enigmatic smile frozen in time.
Stefan focused on the stage with all the attention he was capable of. This was just the first ensemble rehearsal with a piano corepetition, but he wanted to do his best anyway. This performance would be hard not just on the singers and orchestra, who had to work in a different tonality, but on the lighting crew too. The director had decided to make the emperor Karl V.’s deathbed the sole piece of scenery, while lighting would create all the spatial effects.
Stefan looked forward to it immensely—and dreaded it at the same time.
“Indessen wurde ich Kaiser des Reichs, ich kam zum Reichstag nach Worms, und Widerspruch und Zwang fielen mich gewaltig an. Als ob es eben jetzt geschähe, höre ich das misstönende Lärmen der Fürsten im hohen Saal. In unbegreiflichem Streit fahren sie aufeinander los. Wie ein Kessel voll kalten Nebels ist dieses germanische Land,” the dying emperor sang of lament and quarrel, with padre Juan de Regla leaning over his deathbed.
Stefan felt a wave of admiration and a slight pang of envy as he listened to Pavel Ludikar’s portrayal of the king. As a boy, he’d sometimes dreamt of being on the stage himself, but he never got even into the chorus. Being a carpenter and training for a lighting assistant was the closest he could get to the stage.
Most of the technical personnel looked unimpressed and just went about with their jobs. Stefan, however, felt he could appreciate the strange intensity of the piece.
“Wir wußten es nicht. Nur daß in ihm ein Dunkles sein mußte, das ein Dunkles wachrief im Wesen dieser Deutschen, daß sie in ungeheure, zügellose Bewegung, maßlose Unbotmäßigkeit gerieten.” The excellent Pavel Ludikar as Charles V. lamented the tragedies of life, all the dark and madness.
A strange chill went down Stefan’s spine.
Stefan clasped the nearby railing more tightly. Was the song so powerful? But the feeling was so peculiar…
With a start, he realized when he’d felt exactly like this: the summoning. Just before the ghost appeared.
No, it can’t be …
The corepetitor’s outcry made the singers stop. Stefan looked at the piano and his eyes widened.
It still played, but the tune changed, and no one’s hands were touching the keys.
No material hands, at least.
For a split-second, Stefan was frozen in half-surprise, half-fear. Then he desperately fished in his memory for anything that might stop this.
The actor playing Juan de Regla, perhaps carried away by portraying a priest, was the only one to act: He took a few steps toward the haunted piano and said, shaken at first but in an increasingly loud and firm voice: “Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio, contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto præsidium …”
Mid-note, the playing stopped. Deafening silence ensued.
The actor took another step forward, reached very slowly to the piano, and touched a key.
The fallboard slammed down on his hand, and he shrieked.
A grayish shape shot out of the piano and above the stage. The rigging started swaying.
Stefan gulped. Fear almost paralyzed him for a moment, but he collected himself and recalled what he was searching for. He whispered a protection spell under his breath.
Everything was still.
De Regla clutched his injured hand and moaned, and two of his colleagues were tending to him. The rest were suspiciously looking around, as if expecting to see a monster leap at them from anywhere.
Stefan began shaking so badly he was afraid to leave the catwalk.
A sole horrible thought permeated his mind: Was it my fault?
Neumann’s picture was looking down on Eger serenely, but Eger still had the feeling of the famous director’s eyes burning through him and reaching the furthest depths of his soul.
“An exorcist,” the stout man opposite him repeated hollowly after Eger, which snapped the director back into the real world.
“Yes. I can’t imagine how we’ll manage without one if the … ghost returns.”
His friend Max Brod shook his head. “You’re asking for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“I suppose it’s useless to send word to Vienna.”
Brod shook his head. “Not under the current situation.”
“But Paul, perhaps …”
“Paul is here, yes, but you’d need to go talk to him. I won’t be an intermediary. I’m sorry.”
Eger tried to read more from Brod’s face, but the older man’s expression was indecipherable.
“Anyone else?” he asked, allowing himself a spark of hope.
Brod’s eyes unfocused, and a very sad smile played on his lips. “Not many from our circle left, are there? Some left for Vienna, I imagine they’re fleeing elsewhere now … some died … some are living in France, Mexico, America… Paul might know someone from the purely occult circles, perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” Eger echoed. So this was the word that the fate of the Neue deutsche Theater hung to. The outcome of Angelo Neumann’s legacy.
Stefan waited for Hanna until she was able to leave work. “Do you think we’ve done that?” he asked almost breathlessly, as soon as they were a safe distance from the theatre.
“How could we have? You banished the ghost back!” Hanna tugged at her coat nervously. “It must be an accident.”
“You don’t believe that, do you? A ghost hasn’t appeared in the theatre in over two decades, we summon one, and a week later another one accidentally manifests!”
Hanna stopped despite the light rain and looked him in the eyes. “You’re right. But what if we are to blame? We don’t know how to drive the ghost out, so we can’t help. What do you think would happen if we just strolled into the director’s office and told him what happened? He’d fire us! What are the chances of finding another job now?” She shook her head. “I don’t like this any more than you, but we must be silent. The director will sort it out.”
“But knowing the truth might be useful for getting the ghost out!”
Stefan’s lower lip trembled. It almost pained Hanna to see him like this—and to have to crush his ideals. “He’ll manage that anyway,” she said with all the confidence she could muster. “Do you want to lose your job? No? We—must—not— talk!”
He inhaled sharply. “Fine,” he said, attempting a firm tone and failing abominably. Then he just turned on his heel and walked swiftly away. She almost called after him, but decided not to. He’ll be thinking about it and wallowing in his feeling of guilt all evening. Best if he’s left alone to make peace with it. Tomorrow, everything would be better.
For a moment, she closed her eyes, focusing on that thought. Light rain droplets settled on her eyelids and slowly formed small streaks like tears. She heard trams from the distance, a dog barking, someone laughing, and smelled wet soil and cobblestones. It didn’t feel like the world was ending.
But still, she couldn’t make herself believe her own thoughts.
The small ground-floor flat in Slezská street was cluttered and somewhat shabby. Eger had never been here before; when they had Leppin’s two plays in the theatre, they always met there or in some café.
Leppin’s wife Henriette answered the doorbell. “Herr Eger?” she recalled his name. “I’m afraid Paul is a little indisposed, but if you come tomorrow morning…”
“Who is it?” a call came from inside.
“It’s Paul Eger, director of the theatre!”
“Let him in.”
So Eger entered the cramped antechamber and continued to the equally cramped living room. There sat Paul Leppin in a chair that seemed to loom above him.
Eger hadn’t seen the writer for nearly two years and was surprised at how much Leppin had deteriorated in that time. Perhaps the death of his only son a year ago affected him so badly. He rarely ventured out after that tragedy.
“Herr Eger! What a surprise to see you.” Leppin smiled. His youngish smile was the one thing that did not change about him. “Sit down, please. Would you like some tea?”
Eger sat down uncertainly and accepted a cup. The spare chair creaked uncomfortably under him, probably used to holding books and newspapers more than human beings anymore. “How have you been?”
“Well …” Leppin’s gaze fell upon a small stack of papers. “I’ve been writing. New stories and poetry. The first part of my Prager Rhapsodie was just published …”
After a few minutes’ talk, Eger coughed and changed the topic: “I’m afraid I’m here for more pressing reasons. It’s the theatre. We … have a ghost.”
Leppin’s eyes lit up. “Tell me more.”
Eger recounted the incident. The old writer listened attentively in silence.
“Interesting,” he breathed when Eger finished. “So you’ve come to me …”
“To ask for help in exorcising the ghost, yes. You have some knowledge in this matter, don’t you?”
Leppin chuckled slightly. “A little. But no personal experience, if you don’t count the seancés at Meyrink’s over three decades ago …”
“You’re not serious,” Henriette breathed; hard to say which of them she was addressing.
“Nevertheless, if you were willing to be of assistance—” Eger continued.
“It would kill him!” Henriette retorted sharply. She looked from Eger to her husband with a mixture of anger, love, and worry.
Leppin raised a hand, smiling gently. “Calm down, Henriette. You are right, of course … but what if it does? I’m sick and old.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
His light smile widened slightly. “It’s true, my dear. No need to call things false names.” He turned to Eger. “I accept. If you’re content with your exorcist being an old man who most certainly cannot climb rigging or run fast.”
Eger reciprocated his smile. “I am.”
The theatre just before dawn always seemed somehow out of time to Eger. The ornamental building was shrouded in a gray veil of mist. Statues were emerging from it, truly ghost-like.
A strange expression flickered through Leppin’s face as he saw the Neue deutsche Theater.
“The last time I was here on a job, you were giving Der Enkel des Golem. It was just before Christmas and freezing to the bone,” he said for himself. “Seems like a lifetime ago…”
A lifetime ago, Paul Eger had accepted the position of the theatre’s director. The year was 1932 and, despite the crisis, he had no idea what the position had in store for him.
“Come,” he said now, averted his gaze from the gray stone faces of Mozart, Schiller, and Goethe, and led Leppin inside. But before they stepped on the stairs, Eger glanced back up, above the artists, at the tympanon depicting a poet on a Pegasus, ascending to the heavens with Orpheus’s lyre in his clutch. The scene was magnificent, and yet it now seemed ominous to Eger.
No one ever said if the victorious poet was the one speaking for peace and truth.
They arrived at the empty auditorium. “Do you know that I’ve known two exorcists in their time?” said Leppin dreamily. “Gustav Meyrink, of course—or Meyer, as they called him here—and Jiří Karásek, whom I met through the Modern Revue. Karásek was an exorcist for the National Theatre, before he committed to his literary career. But he soon ran out of money and had to accept a position at the post office, where he’d briefly worked before joining the theatre. Much like my life—only I stuck with the post and never became an exorcist.”
Leppin turned to Eger. “I would have recommended you to ask Jiří instead of me, but he’s traveling at this moment and I don’t know how to reach him. But I’m reminiscing too much and exorcising too little, right?” he laughed. “Forgive the old man. This world brings back many fond memories.”
He hissed as he walked the small stairs on the stage, clutching his side. Eger couldn’t fail to notice that, and worried whether inviting Leppin had really been such a good idea. But who else?
Leppin bent down with a visible strain and scratched on the boards curiously. “Look. A warding mark. An old one.”
“Yes, I believe these were carved here by Meyrink, or someone else of his time.” Eger nodded. “Um, do you think they’re … still powerful?”
“I wish I knew,” Leppin admitted. He walked center stage, frowned and bent down again. Eger noticed the tiny vial on a chain that slipped out of Leppin’s waistcoat when he leaned down. There was something iridescent-blue in it, some little crystals perhaps? But the writer tucked it back in hurriedly. Eger decided not to ask for the moment.
Leppin scratched at a small gap between boards. “When did you last use chalk here?”
“We were preparing the scenery, so we used chalk lines … Why?”
“It’s probably nothing.” The writer stood up. “It feels strange here, but it may well be just my aching bones. Let me try something.”
Eger watched half-curious, half-horrified as the old man turned his head up and started uttering words in ancient Greek. Well, old—just three years older than him. But unlike Eger, he looked old.
Leppin finished. It took a while, however, before his gaze focused and he looked back at Eger. He seemed tired, but smiled faintly. “I looked this up yesterday evening, after you visited. Jiří has given me this text long ago—one of the simpler rituals. What you’ve had here really was a ghost. And … I may be wrong, but I think the ghost was … summoned. It feels like when we tried summonings in my youth. It was different then, but the gist is here.”
Eger stared at him. “So … someone is trying to ruin us? Is that so?”
“That’s one possibility.”
“Damn!” Eger exhaled. “I’m sorry … The theatre is under a lot of pressure lately. Can you find the culprit?”
Leppin shook his head. “Not unless they try again, I’m afraid.”
“Well, can you stop them from doing that?”
“Jiří has shown me how to make wards a couple of times. I will set them up around the theatre.” Leppin’s gaze fell to the old marks at the sides of the stage. “Perhaps I could also reinforce the old wards put here by Gustav.”
“What about the people, can you make wards at least for the performers?” Eger inquired.
“I don’t dare to, not yet. If I did it wrong, it could harm them rather than help. It’s much easier with places than people; I see no risk in warding the building itself.”
“All right. Thank you.”
A fleeting trace of bitterness appeared on Leppin’s face. “Don’t thank me yet.”
They could hardly miss the presence of a strange old man going about the theatre, muttering for himself and drawing shapes in the air. The stranger was tall, lean and stooped. His thin face was sharp, almost fierce. The sight of him gave Stefan the creeps. Suddenly, the man turned and their gazes met. Stefan shuddered. The man’s piercing eyes seemed to cut through his flesh and bare his soul. He turned and hurried away.
Hanna looked up as he slipped into her sewing room.
“There is an … exorcist in the theatre,” Stefan started.
But Hanna just nodded. “I’ve heard. But he’s not an exorcist, he’s a writer whom the director invited to play one. Maria knows him, his plays were performed here before either of us joined the theatre. His name is Paul Leppin.”
Suddenly, a knock on the door interrupted them.
“Come in,” Hanna said. Perhaps she expected the wardrobe master.
But Leppin stood in the door. “Good morning.” He bowed his head politely. He looked around the tiny room as if searching for something. He seemed surprised at it.
“Can we help you?” Hanna added. Stefan had to admire her composure.
“Has this always been a sewing room?” Leppin asked.
“Yes, as far as I know.”
“Times change,” Leppin murmured under his breath.
“Do you need anything?” Hanna spoke again. This time, a sting of impatience made it into her voice.
Leppin looked at them—again, that piercing stare. “Might I use this room when you’re not here?”
He shrugged. “I don’t have an office, and I might be required to spend some time here.”
Hanna visibly hesitated. “All right,” she allowed in the end.
Leppin bowed his head again and closed the door after himself.
“He knows,” Stefan said in a deadpan tone.
“Nonsense,” retorted Hanna. “If he did, the director would already be firing us, or worse.”
Stefan scratched his head. “I keep thinking … what if we really did nothing wrong?”
“Just like I was telling you earlier.”
“No, I mean—what if someone else saw us and then misused the ritual?”
Hanna stared at him. “You’re serious?”
“It makes sense.”
“No, it doesn’t. Who would be in the theatre at such an hour, watch us—and remember the ritual? I was sitting right opposite you, and I can’t remember the words!”
“He speaks Greek. Or she. Grammar school education.”
“You’re just being paranoid.”
Stefan looked hurt, and Hanna regretted her words immediately. “Look,” she said calmingly, “I just don’t think it’s likely, that’s all. And we can hardly ask around.”
“No …” Something dawned on Stefan; his gaze changed. “But we could ask someone.”
Leppin liked the no one’s hours between late night and early morning, when even the seediest pubs and bordellos grew quiet and the streets were dark and deserted. He’d loved to roam them in his youth. He could spend the whole night randomly wandering through the city—unless he took refuge in one of those pubs and bordellos.
But spending these strange hours in a former exorcist’s room also had its charms. For now he was certain that what was a sewing room nowadays had previously belonged to the house’s exorcist. He had the same feeling of being close to some invisible veil between worlds here as a long time ago in Gustav Meyrink’s apartment.
He could recall the expensive engraved furniture, Buddha statues, ancient scrolls, eerie paintings, and vials full of the strangest substances, all crammed into the tiny little flat next to an abandoned factory. Meyrink’s last refuge before he bid Prague farewell.
In that strange space, you couldn’t resist the feeling that you were about to face a ghost any moment.
Leppin closed his eyes. Who are you? he thought. Why now, after all those quiet years?
And would you talk to a fraud like me at all? I’m no exorcist, I’m just a writer playing one.
Gustav and Jiří were equally talented in many disciplines. They exorcised; wrote; translated. He … wrote and translated.
If you were right and you can still be somewhere out there, I need your help now more than ever, Gustav Meyrink, Leppin pondered. He sighed and opened his eyes.
He had many wards to reinforce, and a ghost to catch.
Eger sat opposite his opera dramaturge Frederick Weber, clutching a list densely covered in a neat handwriting.
“I just received a letter from Ernst Křenek. He won’t be able to attend the premiere of his Karl V. He has fled to America,” Eger stated. He was aware of the bitterness that had crept into his voice.
“That could be expected. I don’t think it’s wise for us to perform his opera at this time,” Weber said.
“Not an option,” Eger interrupted him, perhaps too fiercely. In a calmer tone, he added: “We mustn’t give way to fear and prejudice. And to drop such a unique piece … no, it stays.”
It was clear from Weber’s face that he disagreed—but he knew when it was pointless to argue with the director.
Eger set his jaw. He’d heard some unwelcome rumors about Weber lately, even that the dramaturge was seen talking to Henlein’s pet Franz Höller.
At least the papers seemed to have praised the theatre lately. He just didn’t know whether to interpret it as a good sign, or consider it a bad omen.
“All right, let’s look at—”
Suddenly, the door burst open. Eger was just about to chastise the stagehand who ran in so rudely, but the look on his face made him stop.
“There was a … manifestation in the dressing rooms.”
“He’s already there. I just thought you should know.”
Eger strode in his wake—but he didn’t run. There was morale to be upheld.
Leppin stood in the middle center of one of the soloists’ dressing rooms and clutched something that looked like improvised divining rods. There were shards all over the room.
“It’s gone,” he said grimly. Eger guessed he didn’t mean permanently.
“What happened here?” the director asked.
Actress Elsbeth Warnholtz looked up from the cup of tea someone had briskly fetched for her. “I just came in to prepare for the evening performance, looked in the mirror, and I saw some … dark shape behind me. I turned, but there was nothing. When I looked in the mirror again, it was there, and leaped at me! I screamed and smashed the mirror with my brush. I’m afraid it’s a mess here, and the theatre has a mirror to replace …”
“Don’t worry about that. What’s most important is that you’re safe.”
Miss Warnholtz seemed shaken, but uninjured and more determined than ever. “I’ve almost become used to threats from living people, even if hidden behind pseudonyms, but this is new,” she tried to joke. “I guess we can’t beat a ghost with a petition, can we?”
“If it could be done, I’m sure you would achieve it.” Eger smiled. Warnholtz was one of the most outspoken members of the Club of Czech and German Theatre Employees and the informal Communist group in the theatre, and she was never afraid of arguing even with Weber, Feistel, Götz, and other opponents within the theatre. “I’m afraid the dressing room will be subject to Mr. Leppin’s work for a while. Would you mind preparing in Mrs. Kunz’s room—that is, if you’re up to performing tonight?”
“Oh, it takes much more to stop me,” Warnholtz assured him and strode out.
Eger and Leppin were left alone in the dressing room.
“This could have ended badly. We need to get rid of the ghost,” Eger stated, overlooking the disarray and trying to imagine what could have happened if not for Warnholtz’s quick wits.
“Damn well I’m working on that, aren’t I?” Leppin lashed out at him.
Eger’s theatre experience allowed him to maintain a measured expression. He merely said, “I do hope so.”
Leppin, on the other hand, looked aghast by his own outburst. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled and turned his gaze away. His hands shook.
“If you’re not well, we can try to manage otherwise. I don’t want you to exhaust yourself …”
“I won’t be well even if I’m sitting home. Here, I might at least be useful,” the older man said.
Pain, tremors, mood swings … Eger didn’t dare to ask about his suspicion. What could it change if he had it confirmed?
“Thank you.” He nodded and left the improvised exorcist. But he was determined to try to reach Jiří Karásek as soon as possible. They clearly needed an experienced exorcist.
After returning to his office, Eger sank to his chair. Only then did his gaze fall upon the pristine white envelope on the table.
It wasn’t there when he left.
With an ominous feeling, he reached for it and pulled out a note. Written in an ornamental script in dark-red ink, it read: If you value the theatre and its safety, get rid of the Jewish and Communist filth. The next one won’t be so lucky.
Eger scarcely overcame the urge to crumble the note and toss it angrily. Instead, he laid it back on the table. Perhaps Leppin could learn something of use from it.
Paul Leppin appeared soon after. But he did not bear good news.
“It’s gone for the moment, but it could return anytime.”
“Then there’s nothing to do?”
“I’ll keep trying.” Leppin looked Eger in the eye. But I don’t know whether it won’t be in vain, his gaze seemed to say.
“What about this?” Eger handed him the note.
Leppin read it, and his expression grew even grimmer. “I have never heard of a ghost who’d leave messages like that.”
“So a human left it?”
“Well …” Eger sighed and leaned back. “At least that’s a force I can reckon with.”
A dozen distorted faces were looking sternly at Leppin.
Is it even still my own face? he wondered. He could hardly recognize those sunken eyes staring at him. Had he transformed into a ghost before he died?
It couldn’t have been his son’s eyes looking at him all of a sudden.
Leppin shivered and threw his jacket over the mirror shards on the table.
He’d hoped to learn something from them—but what was he thinking? He felt a fool; no, worse, a fraud.
There was a ghost haunting the theatre, and nothing he could do.
The world was head over heels, and there was nothing he could do.
His son Paul was gone, and there was nothing he could do. Meyrink, perhaps, would have been capable of that. There were rumors that he’d contacted the soul of his son after the young man had killed himself. But Meyrink himself died scarcely half a year later, and they hadn’t been in contact with Leppin for some time then.
Meyrink, perhaps … But there is nothing I can do!
In one outburst of rage, Leppin swept the contents on the table angrily on the floor.
One shard landed on his leg, however.
In it, Leppin glimpsed his own face—for it was his own, there was no doubt—contorted in anger, and something recoiled in him. It felt prophetic; a vision of the future.
Future that only held fear for him, although he would never admit that.
“Are you serious?” Hanna stressed.
“All right. Let’s do it.”
This time, they were cooped up in Hanna’s sewing room. They saw the exorcist leave and the whole theatre was deserted, but the stage still felt too exposed. Hanna didn’t miss the strange expression in Stefan’s face when she suggested they stay here in this room. She half-expected him to refuse, saying quite reasonably that the exorcist came to this room, but he didn’t.
She spent several evenings in the library, devouring everything related to ghosts and summonings. She looked up works of the famous exorcists of the old times, but to her disappointment, she only found fiction with precious little specifics in these piles of books.
Many of them could no longer be found in her homeland.
Not that she would be able to enter a library there.
Hanna wondered grimly just how long she’d remain allowed in libraries here.
“Sit next to me.”
“Not across like the last time?”
“We’ll try a variation of the ritual.”
The Athanasius variety? she thought, but kept silent. After much searching, she’d found what she’d been looking for. Now she felt like she understood what each piece of preparation Stefan had made the last time meant. She watched him draw a slightly different set of ornaments on the floor, and she recalled seeing those symbols.
It takes two to perform this ritual, she remembered. Good. It would give me more power over the ghost.
“This time, I’ll need you to say a few words.” Stefan looked her in the eye. “You’ll be repeating after me. Can you do it?”
Hanna suppressed a wry grin. “Can a girl repeat a few words”—coming even from you?
“Of course,” she smiled instead.
Stefan lit the only candle and Hanna switched off the electric light. They sat inside their part of the ornament.
Hanna had to admit she wouldn’t have remembered all the words of the ritual—but as Stefan incanted them and gestured to her to repeat some parts, she could recall seeing them written somewhere in the stacks of books she’d gone through.
They uttered the last words. Hanna felt as if something brushed against her shoulder lightly, and almost gave a start.
It was just draft, it must have been. It’s coming.
The air before them shimmered faintly – and then an outline could be recognized.
This time, they could see the ghost’s features more clearly. It may have been the same one; may not have. But it was—or rather had been in life—a young woman. Hanna caught herself wondering whether the ghost’s look depicted the person when they died, and if so, why this girl died at such young age.
“Don’t be afraid,” Stefan spoke softly. “We won’t hold you here for long. Do you understand?”
The translucent girl nodded.
“We’ll just ask you a few questions and then let you go. Do you know what’s causing the recent apparitions in this theatre?”
The ghost seemed to consider Stefan’s words, and again gave a slow nod.
Hanna could see the apparition’s face move, as if it tried to speak—but no sound came.
“Write it down,” she compelled it.
Stefan gave her a surprised look, but nodded.
The girl’s face looked blank. When Stefan made a gesture of writing, she shook her head.
“She can’t write,” Hanna realized.
“Has anyone from the theatre summoned a ghost to haunt this place?”
A nod, this time.
“Do you know who did it?”
“Are they employed as an actor or singer?”
She shook her head.
Stefan continued the list, but the ghost gave a negative answer for each. Exasperated, Stefan looked at Hanna. “I’m not sure we’ll get anywhere. We should probably release …”
“No,” Hanna said in a measured tone. She shifted her gaze back to the apparition.
It was now, or never.
She uttered the initial binding spell, and continued in German: “By the power of Hades and Persephone, by the darkness enshrouding the world of the dead, I bind you to serve us and obey our commands.”
With her peripheral vision, she glimpsed Stefan’s ashen face, his mouth forming a silent O. But she was looking at the ghost, whose shimmery face stayed blank. But something, perhaps, shifted in those dark eyes of the long-dead woman.
Hanna raised her head higher. “I thereby command you to protect this theatre and its people. You shall above all else protect the lives and health of the people, guard the theatre itself and its belongings, and fight any earthly or spiritual influences that seek to do us harm. Do you understand?”
The ghost’s shape blurred. Then it shot toward Hanna.
“No!” shouted Stefan and threw himself in front of her. The spirit collided with him and seemed to have disappeared into his chest. Stefan gasped for air. His eyes rolled.
For a split second, Hanna froze, but then memories revolved in her mind. Exorcisms. Banishings. First aid.
She hastily muttered what she’d remembered of the words to end the ritual, and she held Stefan's shoulders to prevent his shaking body from getting injured. “Stefan!”
The tremors stopped as abruptly as they began. Hanna checked his breath. To her relief, he was breathing, albeit shallowly. She slapped his face gently. “Stefan, wake up.”
Her grandmother would have had smelling salts on herself. Hanna never did.
Suddenly, Stefan blinked. “W-what … oh …”
Hanna laughed with relief. “Stefan! I’m so glad you’re all right. I’m so sorry…” Her voice broke. “I never meant for this to happen.”
But he wasn’t looking at her, perhaps even listening to her. “S-so cold…” His teeth chattered.
Hanna took off her sweater and shawl and wrapped them around his chest. Now she felt cold just in her blouse, but the cold he was feeling was something else entirely. His face was ashen, the skin almost translucent.
She reached to touch his forehead, just to see whether he could have had fever, but Stefan’s gaze shot toward her and he spoke coarsely: “Don’t touch me!”
Hanna withdrew. “I’m sorry,” she repeated hollowly.
Stefan sat up laboriously, leaning on the wall. “It could have killed me.”
“But you deflected it.”
“I didn’t. Something else saved me.” Stefan struggled to stand up. Hanna offered to help him, but he pushed her away. Leaning heavily on a chair, he stood.
He gave a bitter look to the ornaments on the floor. “I’d leave and let you clean this up, but I’m afraid you’d try something crazy again.”
“It was a mistake. I’m sorry.”
His expression, a mix of fear and disgust, tore at her heart—but she didn’t allow it to show.
“I only meant to protect us and the whole theatre. I know it was a bad idea now. Forgive me.”
“Would you have forgiven yourself if you’d imprisoned the ghost in our world, forced it to fight our battles?” Stefan said quietly. “And—would you have forgiven yourself if it killed someone?”
Her facade of proud determination almost broke. “I would have released it when we were safe. And as for … No. I wouldn’t. You know I wouldn’t.”
Stefan’s face contorted. “I’m afraid I don’t know that anymore.”
The emperor writhed in pain on his deathbed. Paul Leppin could relate.
He had to muster all of his strength just to keep focused. The back pain was more severe today, he scarcely got any sleep, and he felt his mood swing disturbingly. On top of it, the little sewing room felt different today—somehow ominous.
A mirror shard rested in Leppin’s lap now, reflecting only his thin worried face.
He tried to enchant it to show him in advance where the ghost was going to strike next. But to no avail, it seemed so far. If it was connected to the ghost at all, he didn’t manage to make use of it. It only ever reflected his likeness.
At least it didn’t show him his son again. It had been just an illusion back then, a product of his imagination … or deteriorating mind? He dared not think about that.
“Leben: die helle Seite dort, erfüllt mit Tat und Hoffnung auf Vollbringen, hier das dunkle, tatenlose Nichts, die Nacht gebrochen Wahns,” the excellent Pavel Ludikar as Charles V. lamented.
Leppin knew that the king too had outlived his child, infanta Isabel. But his other daughters and sons would live past his death.
He didn’t have to live through the death of an only son.
Leppin’s fingertips tingled. He sat up straighter. Fatigue, ghost, or … hallucinations?
Then came the almost intangible smell of metal, and Leppin felt icy cold deep in his arthritic joints. The divining rods in his pocket twitched, and he felt half-cautious, half-elated. It actually worked! Something happened to the shard too. Its surface dimmed, and then began to show an image of the deathbed onstage. But in the image, Ludikar wasn’t gesturing and singing. He just lay there, menacingly motionless.
Leppin stood up. His joints protested, and he hissed from the back pain. Today was not a good day.
The rods led him backstage. There were a few technical workers and actors waiting for the start of their part. It was quiet.
But the divining rods still twitched, as if they wanted to point in two directions at once. They were trying to bend… up? Leppin looked there, but saw nothing unusual.
One of the actors headed onstage, a knight. The rods twitched again.
They pointed right toward the emperor.
Leppin cursed under his breath and walked onstage. “Pause the—” he started.
The knight’s hand jerked, as if it didn’t belong to him at all. He cried out, more in surprise than fear.
Leppin shouted the first thing that occurred to him, a spell he’d known from Jiří.
With no avail. The wooden sword—because it was the sword held in the actor’s hand that was seized by another power —swung and bore down on the emperor, who didn’t roll away in time—he barely managed to cover his head with an arm. The sword hit it hard. The singer shrieked in pain.
Leppin fumbled for holy water in his pocket. Suddenly, extreme pain shot from his back through his whole body. He gasped and fell to his arthritic knees. Was it the ghost’s doing, or just his illness choosing the worst possible time?
Through the mist of pain, he saw the sword bearing down on Ludikar for the second time.
Despite the agony, pure undiluted fury grasped hold of him—fury against the ghost, against the world, against the odds that put him here instead of someone competent, such as Karásek or Meyrink. The divining rods snapped clean in his hand. Something changed in the air. It almost crackled with electricity.
Then everything seemed to go still for Leppin. He saw the sword descend as if in a slowed-down movie. All tension vanished. The pain was gone. Leppin felt warmth and serenity wash over him. This is not right, he thought vaguely, watching the sword.
The weapon changed its trajectory, gliding elegantly toward the edge of the bed instead of Ludikar’s body. Leppin smiled a calm, satisfied smile as he watched it do so.
Cut—and the world was speeding past him again.
The sword hit the bed with considerable force, and the actor dropped it like something poisonous. It clattered onto the floor and stayed there, unmoving.
Leppin felt the otherworldly presence rapidly subside.
But before it was entirely gone, a torn part of the curtain fluttered down to the stage and descended onto the old floorboards slowly, neatly unfolding.
On it was written in large, gothicized letters: AWAY WITH THE FILTH IN THIS THEATRE
Paul Eger felt a disconcerting déjà vu, when the door burst open and a terrified man stood in it, while he’d been absorbed in a discussion of the matters of his theatre with his dramaturge Weber.
“The ghost … the sword … Mr. Ludikar…”
Weber ran through the door, Eger just after him. They found the lead singer still on the emperor’s deathbed—sitting and clutching his right arm.
“I think it’s broken,” he hissed when he saw the director. He was ashen and obviously in pain, but Eger felt a wave of relief that nothing worse than a broken arm apparently occurred. He spoke with the singer, assured him he'd get a doctor—a stagehand was already sent to fetch one—and some compensation. Then his gaze finally fell on the piece of curtain on the floor.
The black looming letters on the red velvet felt like a slap on the face of this theatre, its history and people. Eger sucked in air.
“This cannot go on,” he said so quietly that no one but Weber, standing right beside him, could hear him.
Eger went on to talk with Leppin. The exorcist had to admit that although he managed to stop the ghost this time, it wasn’t a permanent solution. He had no idea how to banish it.
They dismissed the ensemble save for the evening’s performance. The ghost never manifested during any play, and Eger still hoped for the best though he was reluctant to potentially risk lives. But what was he to do – shut down the whole theatre?
“Cancel Karl V.,” Weber suggested.
The casualness with which he made the suggestion stirred something inside Eger. He recalled the rumors about Weber’s suspicious acquaintances, his embrace of a nationalist worldview … He had never tried to push it forward in the theatre—but perhaps he was just plotting behind everyone’s backs.
“Come with me. Now!” Eger snapped when he saw Weber’s hesitation.
Eger strode to his office. Frederick Weber could barely keep up with his pace. He entered the director’s office bearing a perplexed expression.
As soon as the door closed after them, Eger shouted: “Is this all your doing? Admit it!” He was shaking and deathly pale with fury. “I know what people you’ve been meeting, what politics you prefer and that you disagree with my choice of repertoire. Now you’re trying to make me drop an opera by an emigrant, in a style that doesn’t suit the preferences of … your acquaintances. Just like last time, an incident occurred when you’ve been in my office. Seems like you set it all up before and were trying to have the best alibi, doesn’t it?” The director gulped. “That disgusting letter, the words on the curtain—you wrote that, didn’t you? Just finally admit it …”
“You’re right that I’m not trying to hide what I think,” Weber said slowly. “Even if it gets me the sneers and frowns of other people. Doesn’t that at least make me more honest than those people who pretend they’re against nationalism, while they would leap at the first chance to embrace it if it could get them higher? I’m not a hypocrite.”
“The ghost—is it your doing?” Eger pressed on.
“No.” Weber’s gaze fell upon the director’s desk where they sat just half an hour ago. His eyes first widened with surprise. Then he produced a sad little smile. “And I think I see a proof of that.”
A pristine envelope rested on the papers they were going through before the incident. Eger walked to it slowly, as if in a dream, and took out the folded letter inside.
It bore the same ancient-like handwriting. The same hate-spewing kind of message.
We have warned you before. Stop filling this theatre with this truculent Emigrantenkunst. Unless you do, it will be done for you.
“I couldn’t have left this, I was with you all this time,” Weber remarked into the ensued silence. “Unless you think I can be at two places at once or the theatre is teeming with accomplices.”
Eger stared at the letter. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s a little late for that.”
“No, I have been wrong to suspect you and made a terrible mistake in not trusting you. Please forgive me.” Eger set aside the awful paper. “I … I’d be honored if you stayed, despite what I’d said. This theatre needs you.”
“And how can I know that you won’t leap to the same conclusion if something else happens?” Bitterness permeated Weber’s voice. He stuck out his chin. “No matter. I didn’t want to tell you, but I’ve received a good offer from Ostrau. I was inclined to refuse, but given how little you value me here …”
“You’ll be the first in line in Ostrau.”
“There’s one thing in which you were right. I don’t really mind the possibility of that.” Weber raised the corners of his lips in a bitter smile. “Good luck finding another dramaturge right now.”
Eger watched him leave without another word.
The feeling of control inevitably slipping away from him grasped him especially strongly now. God, he needed some good news. The premiere of Karl V. was supposed to be in less than a month, but their lead singer had a fractured arm and Eger wouldn’t be surprised if he refused to step into this house ever again, and he wouldn’t be able to persuade the singer without giving up his honesty and principles.
Is this the end? occurred to him. Or just a prelude to it?
Hanna pondered her fate long and hard. But there was only one conclusion she seemed to reach every time: no matter what happened to her later, she had to come clean. But she also had to protect Stefan. After all, the “Let’s get another ghost on our side” was her own stupid idea, and might have turned out to be a far too costly one.
That was why she turned up at the doorstep of a ground-floor flat scarcely after dawn.
Her hand stopped short almost touching the door.
She was going to throw away a job, perhaps a future …
No. She wouldn’t turn her back.
Hanna knocked strongly, perhaps too strongly. The older woman who opened the door didn’t seem pleased. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry for intruding so early, but I need to speak with Mr. Leppin. My name is Hanna Weisz. I work in the theatre.”
“Another one?” The woman raised a brow. Her lips were pressed tightly. “Come in, then.”
Another one? Hanna wondered before she entered the tiny living room. There sat Leppin in a huge recliner chair—and opposite him sat Stefan. He looked at her with utter astonishment.
Leppin looked her up and down and said: “I suppose you’re here about the ghost too?”
Hanna collected herself enough to nod. She sat in the remaining empty chair. A cup of tea landed before her the next thing, even though she didn’t ask for any. She glimpsed the woman, probably Leppin’s wife, leave the room with a stern, disapproving expression.
“It’s my fault—” Hanna started at the same time as Stefan, uttering the exact same words.
They looked at each other in disbelief.
“I summoned it,” Stefan said firmly and turned to Leppin again. “Let me tell you what happened.”
“Pray continue. And be so kind as to tell me the truth. You’re obviously both implicated, so don’t keep up this charade of my fault, your fault.”
Leppin listened to their account without interruption. The expression on his thin long face was stern.
Heavy silence fell when they finished. The tea had grown cold; none of them touched it during their conversation.
Finally, Leppin spoke: “That’s quite a tale. I should tell you that you made a horrible mistake and meddled in something that must be left alone. That you endangered not just your lives, but the lives of everyone in the theatre, and that you should have told me right away.” A melancholic smile played on the old man’s lips. “But I won’t, since you already know that and since I used to be the same fool like you two are.”
He absently picked up the cold teacup. “Let’s focus on ridding us of the current ghost. You’ve mentioned that you might have given someone the idea to summon a ghost if they saw you performing the ritual. Any idea who might that be?”
“The actors tend to be superstitious, and might know more about old theatre rumors and rituals. As to motive … Trabauer doesn’t seem to mind the hakenkreuzers,” Stefan said after a momentary hesitation. “He plays Frundsberg in Karl V. Or perhaps Grahl, who plays Francisco Borgia.”
“Do you think either would have stayed late in the theatre and seen your ritual?”
“No … I don’t see how.”
“Anyone stays there late habitually?”
“Apart from the director, the cleaners, of course,” Stefan said. “Sometimes carpenters if there’s scenery left to work on, but not that night.”
“It might have been Götz,” Hanna added. “He’s an actor and stage director, and he started openly sympathizing with Hitler.”
Stefan nodded reluctantly. “I’ve seen him here late a few times when there was work to be done shortly before premieres he was involved in, but that wasn’t the case that night.”
“We’re forgetting one thing,” Hanna reminded him. “Whoever saw us couldn’t memorize the ritual, unless they had some previous interest or experience, or knew where to look it up. It could have been someone whose friends or relatives were involved in spiritism or exorcism earlier.”
“Like you two?” Leppin suggested dryly. He shook his head. “This way of making a ... list of suspects … reminds me of the way other lists are being put together. I don’t like the notion.”
“What else can we do?”
Leppin laid aside his empty cup. “When the ghost you summoned attacked you, what did you feel?”
Stefan seemed taken aback by the sudden change of topic. Hanna lowered her eyes.
“Well … cold, hollowness … I couldn’t move when it was already next to me, reaching into me—but then something stopped it. I didn’t do anything. I felt the presence of something or someone else. Then it vanished, just like the ghost.”
“Interesting,” Leppin mumbled under his breath. For a moment, he seemed utterly lost in thought. Then he looked up sharply. “Do you realize I have to tell Director Eger sooner or later?”
“Do what you must.” Hanna set her jaw.
“But I ask you to let us stay until this trouble is over,” Stefan added. “If we can be of some help …”
“Perhaps, perhaps you can …”
Hanna watched the old writer and new exorcist’s thin wrinkled face with sunken eyes with a sting of pity. They were the ones who’d turned this frail, ill man’s life upside down, and the theatre’s life as well. She really hoped they could help.
Suddenly, he looked up with a strange gleam in his eyes. “Speaking of the ritual you performed, I suppose you can’t summon some ghost in particular, can you?” he asked. “If you, for instance, wanted to summon the spirit of let’s say … Mozart, could you?”
“It would be difficult, but not impossible, I think,” Stefan said hesitantly.
Hanna frowned at seeing the distant pensive expression that set in Leppin’s face.
It was the look of someone contemplating a grave mistake. Perhaps she’d looked like that when it had occurred to her to bind another ghost to help them prevail over the previous one.
“Ghosts …” Leppin mumbled. Then, he raised his gaze to meet Hanna’s. “What did you say that young woman’s ghost told you?”
“Well, at first she said that someone from the theatre summoned the other ghost, but when we asked about that person’s profession, she told us nothing.”
“How did you ask again?”
“If they were employed as an actor, singer, technical crew … The answer was no to everything.”
“Ha!” Leppin chuckled all of a sudden, making Hanna and Stefan look at him in surprise. “I think I know the answer to this little riddle—and hopefully to our summoner as well.”
“President calls for caution and unity! Sudetendeutsche Partei celebrates victory in the regions that voted yesterday, remains at low in Prague! Temporary ban of public gatherings and marches!”
The newsboys were getting a lot of attention this Monday morning. Eger himself bought Prager Tagblatt, like he did regularly every morning on his way to work.
This particular late May morning was warm and sunny, and had all the charm of spring at its peak. It was in sharp contrast to the overall mood. Nature didn’t play by dramatic rules; it would be doing whatever it pleased no matter what feuds people waged with each other.
Later in his office, Eger got several calls and telegrams from his contacts about news in German newspapers. They referred to a Czechoslovakian military airplane that supposedly crossed German borders without permission; should peace be risked because of this provocation; powerful victory of the righteous Sudetendeutsche Partei; armed Czech Sokols caused incidents at Polish borders …
He didn’t know whether there was truth in any of that, apart from the election results, but he knew with grim certainty that it would be well-used by Germany regardless of that.
A glance at his watch told him that he should get to the auditorium to manage another rehearsal of Karl V. He didn’t have to, but wanted to oversee this performance personally, especially after his opera dramaturge had left.
What should he tell the ensemble?
Eger took one final look at Angelo Neumann’s picture on the wall. Showtime.
Conversations were dying down when he passed by. Whispers quieted.
The silence that fell when he stopped center stage couldn’t have been any heavier.
“I don’t have any clever quote or sure advice for you,” Eger began. “I won’t lie to you. The future is uncertain and looks darker with each passing day. What place does theatre have in a world where we’re witnessing atrocities and where many of you worry about your loved ones who have remained behind our borders? I have no the answer for that. I know only one thing for sure: people who fear and worry during the day burst into laughter here in the evening, hold their breath with expectation and feel hope. I don’t know what awaits us and when, but we cannot take this away from them—or ourselves.”
He felt strange, seeing their tense faces. They held onto his words, cradled them in their souls like prayer. The crowning achievement of his acting career might be … a speech for the ensemble.
He really was good. He even managed to persuade himself that they should persist.
Strangely elated, in a dream-like state, Eger shivered. But the cold he felt was dream-like too.
“Oh no,” he breathed. A little cloud of vapor formed by his mouth.
He wanted to move. But he couldn’t.
So this is what it’s like to be touched by death, he thought. He failed to feel fear, but was sure that it would come sooner or later.
Paul Leppin’s eyes widened with consternation—and fear, which he didn’t fail to feel.
Director Eger stood motionless center stage, mist condensing around him and needles of frost forming on his fingertips.
Almost unconsciously, Leppin started reciting the spell that would reinforce the wards around the stage. His joints hurt more with every word. He uttered the final syllables in pain and almost collapsed, but a pair of strong arms caught him in time.
“What do we do?” Stefan asked.
Many possibilities flew through Leppin’s mind. Spells; amulets; holy water … But he instinctively knew that none would work, not even with Stefan’s and Hanna’s help.
Hanna … The girl stared at Director Eger, just like everyone else, but she alone wasn’t standing stiff with fear or disbelief. Her expression was one of grim determination. She stepped toward the stage. In this instant, she reminded Leppin of Milada, a character from one of his old stories. The stage light created a halo around her head for a passing moment, but she was far from a saint. She was bold, stubborn, alluring.
“What do we do?” echoed in Leppin’s ears—but no, Stefan was just repeating those words.
In that moment, a shout overcame all the murmur. “You coward! Hiding behind a dead soul!” Hanna screamed at the whole theatre. “If you want to fight, at least face us!”
She jumped onstage and walked toward Eger. This time, fear was very much apparent in her face, but she didn’t falter. She extended her arm and touched the director’s shoulder. She gasped.
Some of the needles of frost on the director’s fingertips melted, but others formed on her body.
Leppin awoke. He muttered a spell to reinforce the wards, but it did nothing at all. He tried seeing the spirit, but that failed too.
A cloud of vapor formed in front of Hanna’s face, and she was shivering, but she breathed out some words and the frost on Eger’s body thawed slightly. But it grew on hers.
“Come back!” Stefan called out. “You’ll hurt yourself!”
“I—don’t—care,” Hanna uttered through her clattering teeth. Somehow, she managed to raise both her head and her voice, and called out: “Whoever the hell you are, try to take me first! I am what you most despise, no? A Jew who ran from those bastards across the border, begging for work here! So—do you have the courage to face me?”
No one responded.
Eger and Hanna were past shivering. Frost was crawling up their bodies, forming a translucent mosaic on their faces.
It must be someone here. Someone from the theatre. But not employed as … anything. Leppin looked around. He tried to remember what he’d seen in the documentation Director Eger had reluctantly agreed for him to glance through. His memory wasn’t what it used to be lately, but he could still recall Eger’s “creative handling of contracts.” Among other things, it meant that some of the people working here weren’t technically employed by the theatre.
He drew a sharp breath. But who?
Suddenly, he noticed an empty space where someone had been just a moment ago.
Horst Feistel. Of course. But where has he gone?
With the rods broken, Leppin resorted to throwing pinches of sand into the air, as Meyrink had shown him ages ago. To his own amazement, it worked. Even to his old eyes, the direction was clear. Movement became difficult, as if he tried to walk through water, but both he and Stefan got backstage. There sat a man hunched over a chalk ornament.
It really was Feistel, the scenographer. Formally employed by a film company where Eger had some friends, Leppin realized.
Feistel opened and closed his mouth, much like a shored fish. “I'm trying to stop it,” he blurted out.
“So do it,” Leppin said coldly.
“I ... don’t know how.”
Stefan looked as if about to punch the scenographer, but both he and Leppin could see that he was telling the truth. He really had no idea how to control the spirit he’d unleashed.
Precious seconds were running by.
Leppin took the surprised man by the collar and nearly dragged him the shortest way to the stage. Eger and Hanna were both covered in a thin layer of frost. Such beautiful patterns ...
Leppin threw the man toward them. “Stop it or join them,” he stated.
Feistel straightened himself and looked at the shocked audience. “No,” he said. His voice carried through the hall. “Not until I’m convinced the theatre will change for good.”
Stefan could no longer control himself and lurched at him, but he froze mid-motion. He looked at Hanna with desperation. Her chest rose with shallow breaths, but otherwise she resembled a ghost more than a living person.
Leppin couldn’t miss the strange gleam in Feistel’s eyes, and it occurred to him how much of the man and how much of the ghost was in charge. He wanted to take a step toward him, but found that he couldn’t. Each attempt to move led to unspeakable pain in his joints, and it was no longer like trying to walk through water, but through treacle. Taking a step would mean passing from the agony.
“We’ll no longer suffer the current direction of the theatre!” Feistel continued. “So why delay the inevitable?” He looked around at his colleagues. “We haven’t been a truly German theatre for some time, but we can become one again! We will. It’s just a matter of time. Why wait?” The scenographer raised his voice: “Just look at us! We’ve been losing audience for decades! We were being ridiculed and mocked.”
“That is not true,” Leppin managed to croak.
“It is, and you’ve enabled it, just like the director! Not out of malice, I hope, but you’re being myopic!” The scenographer burst into a sad, desperate laughter. “Even bloody Czech journalists see it! And it’s time something was done. Something that should have been done a long time ago.”
Leppin’s desperation could be matched only by his rising anger.
It would kill him, Henriette had feared back then, when Eger came calling for help.
So be it. He had one foot in the grave anyway.
Unless I’m mistaken, if it’s truly you, my friend … listen to me. You know it could kill me, but you must also know it’s worth it. We must stop this, he thought.
Back home, he’d hesitated whether to reveal his suspicion to the two youngsters. In the end, he kept it to himself. Perhaps he was just an old fool when it occurred to him that Stefan’s rescue and his success with temporarily driving the ghost away could have been caused by another ghost—of someone who’d had lots of experience with exorcism in his own life.
“I call you, ghost of Gustav Meyrink,” he whispered. “I offer you this old body as your shell in our world. I will pay the price gladly. If you’re here, don’t wait anymore.”
A scent of something smoky and sweet, and something warm on his chest.
Of course …
On a chain tucked under his vest hung a small vial containing blue crystals.
Gustav had given it to him. Leppin couldn’t resist and immortalized the scene, with some little changes, in his Severin’s Journey into Darkness. After all, the novel’s Nicolas was a quite accurate copy of Meyrink after his life had fallen apart, and before his departure for Vienna.
“What is it?” Severin asks in the novel.
“Chinese poison,” Nicolas replies.
“And you’re giving it to me?”
“I have more where it came from.”
It’s poison. My way out, my escape if I feel I’m losing myself too much … that I’m losing against the disease eating me away, Leppin thought grimly. Should he depart on his final journey now?
With as much effort as he could muster, in spite of the agonizing pain, he raised his arm, took out the vial, and pressed it to his lips.
The poison tasted bittersweet. But before he could empty the vial in his mouth, it turned strongly bitter. Leppin pulled the vial from his lips. More than a half its contents still remained.
His gaze unfocused. His legs felt even heavier than before. His own body felt strange, almost alien to him, like a robot he was controlling from somewhere else.
He recalled having shared his body for a few eternal seconds with a restless ghost, whom no one had believed when she’d been alive. But that wasn’t his memory, was it?
Leppin felt his lips widen into an insane smile.
So you’ve made it! I’d love to talk with you about everything … but we’ve got work.
Suddenly, he clearly saw the silvery net surrounding the whole room. The employees were trapped in it like caught fish. Icy mist swirled around Eger and Hanna.
Feistel’s eyes shone with unearthly light. Did he control the spectre without even realizing it, or had the ghost gained control over him?
It didn’t matter. He could recall all the ghosts whom he’d ever sent back behind the veil, and knew that he hadn’t got his faithful tarot cards, divining rods, holy water, Ganges or Nile water, dried herbs, amulets… he had nothing but his own experience.
But that was enough.
Leppin felt pain shoot through his whole body as he stepped toward Feistel, but he regarded it as something distant, unimportant. The scenographer’s face betrayed consternation. He was within reach now. Leppin touched Feistel’s forehead and felt power flowing like water in a well. Feistel didn’t control it, not consciously at least.
Leppin spoke something he wouldn’t understand, but somehow he knew what the ancient Arabic spell meant.
He felt the power flowing from Feistel into his palm, but it put up a fight. It threatened to take him down with it if he banished it. Leppin wouldn’t struggle if it meant the theatre would be safe.
However, his old friend would never allow such a thing.
He touched the invisible threads with his other hand and pulled. He heard dozens of relieved and terrified breaths being released.
But Feistel didn’t give up, and neither did the ghost within.
“Stop!” Feistel screamed. “You’re just sinking this theatre! I want to save it, whatever the price!”
Leppin glimpsed Stefan leaning above Eger and Hanna, both trembling, but alive.
It was just between him and Feistel now.
Leppin caught Eger’s gaze and something in him, perhaps his old friend, spoke: “This theatre doesn’t need saving—not now. Perhaps soon … not by the likes of you, but from them. It will put up a fight, because it lives in the dreams and memories of people who won’t let you take it from them, not without defending it.”
He grasped Feistel’s temples with both hands. It felt like being struck by lightning. Something shot through him, flowed inside him alongside the poison in his veins. He feared that his heart wouldn’t stand it, that the ghost would escape and he’d die without stopping it—but something else managed to do just that. Leppin felt the ghost losing the battle taking place within him.
Paul Leppin’s life flashed in front of his eyes. The smiles of women, rustling of dresses and light of lanterns. Blue dusk, and cold morning breeze just before the golden dawn. Melancholic waves upon the river while he walked the deserted riverbank. Laughter, cries, biting frost, scorching flames, love, betrayal. The intoxicating scents of churches and brothels. Empty pockets and halos of cigarette smoke. Eager faces of students and spectres in the eyes of old women. Cobblestones under tired feet, and the endless arch of heaven above disheveled hair. Grotesques and tragedies. Births. Funerals. Sorrow …
And among all that, he caught glimpses of another life …
… before they vanished like the fine mist above the river at dawn, and he suspected it was the last time they would meet—at least in this world.
“Thank you, my friend,” Leppin whispered, barely audibly.
The presence of something otherworldly had passed and he stumbled, but someone caught him. It was Stefan, who gave him an encouraging smile and helped him to a chair.
Horst Feistel trembled and fell on his knees, his face distorted in defeat.
“I only wanted to save this theatre,” he whispered. Tears ran down his cheeks.
Leppin despised him—but at the same time, he believed him.
Midnight sounded. Then one a.m. Two.
Paul Leppin stared at a picture of his son, taken just months before his death.
He never got to say goodbye.
On one hand, I’m glad you didn’t get to see how the world crumbles further around us. But on the other hand … you had your life ahead of you. You should have lived, not me. Not me.
How easy it would be to perform a summoning ritual, and try to call for this particular soul …
“No,” he sighed, and laid down the photograph. “I trust you’re in a good place, wherever that may be. Rest in peace.”
The emperor had died. He’d left behind an empire on which the sun never set.
It would soon crumble. But history would remember it … Paul Eger wondered if it would too remember something as small as a theatre after it was gone. His gaze traveled from Charles V.’s deathbed to the empty place in the box next to the stage. But the young Stefan and Hanna sat beside the empty chair, prepared to intervene if needed. Eger doubted it would ever be necessary again. The time of ghosts seemed to be over. Something much more sinister haunted the world now.
“Unfinished is his work,” stated Juan de Regla, and Eger focused on the stage again.
“But we are eternally grateful to him, for he tried heroically,” said Francisco Borgia.
Eleonore finished hoarsely: “Peace be with him.”
A moment of silence.
Then, a round of ground-shattering applause.
Paul Eger watched it with the same mix of joy, pride, satisfaction, and melancholy as always. This was a marvelous ending for this operatic season.
Later, when congratulations for the performers were over and the backstage grew silent, he retreated back into his office. There was still work to do.
He shouldn’t spend time with financial overviews and contracts so late and after a successful premiere, but he would have peace at this time. Tomorrow, all the crazy wheel of fortune that was theatre would start spinning anew.
As he unlocked the office, his gaze fell upon a folded piece of paper on the floor. Someone must have slid it under the door. Eger reached for it with a tightening feeling in his gut.
The spiteful, threatening contents confirmed his expectation. Anonymous, of course, and typed. It wasn’t the first such note, nor would it be the last, Eger was sure. Ever since the May election, he felt like they were all living on borrowed time.
Eger sank into the chair and buried his face in his palms. The sensation of his cold thin fingers on his forehead felt ghost-like. He would never let others see it, but he was impossibly tired. Sometimes he wondered what he was still doing here. He could quit. Leave, and never return. Find another job. Maybe another place to live.
But he could never bring himself to actually do it.
“You knew how it is, didn’t you?” he spoke toward the picture of Angelo Neumann. “No matter how much it drains you, how many obstacles you must face, you can’t simply leave. Not when the reward is seeing a masterpiece come alive. Not when it sends shivers through your body. Not when you see the faces full of awe, anguish, joy—whatever you want to make them feel. It’s impossible to just leave this behind, isn’t it?”
He knew the answer.
The show must go on, all the way to the bitter end.
If only it did not loom so close.
The show is over, the German theatre in Prague has stopped existing. A precious treasure to which many people clung with their very hearts … Something great and unspeakably beautiful has ended …
- translated from Bohemia editorial, November 2, 1938
Author’s note: The story and its take on real historical figures are fictitious, but when portraying people who’d really existed, I tried to adhere to their actual lives as much as the story allowed. Here are the fates of some of them.
Paul Eger with his family left Prague on September 29, 1938, the day of the Munich Agreement. He died in 1947 in Switzerland, aged sixty-six. Many other employees of the Neue deutsche Theatre fled. The remaining ensemble tried to keep it working, but in vain. Karl V. had no reprise after the June premiere. On November 2, 1938, the theatre shut down after more than half a century.
Max Brod with his wife and a handful of friends left Prague on a visa to Palestine at the last minute—less than a day after they’d fled, in March 1939, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. His fate, at least, was quite happy. Though his life in Israel was hardly easy, he continued to produce influential work in journalism, fiction, drama, music, and translation up to his death in 1968.
Paul Leppin was arrested by the Nazi regime in March 1939. He was let free after he suffered a stroke while in jail, and he was forced to sign an allegiance to the NSDAP. His health declined rapidly and he was confined to a wheelchair. He died on April 10, 1945. His wife Henriette lived to see Prague liberated—and then was forced to leave Czechoslovakia along with other Germans by the Beneš decrees. She died a year later.