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Title: The Adventure of the German Student
Author: Washington Irving
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
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Edition: 1
Language: English
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Date first posted: July 2006
Date most recently updated: July 2006

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The Adventure Of The German Student
Washington Irving

On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French Revolution,
a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across
the old part of Paris. The lightning gleamed, and the loud claps of
thunder rattled through the lofty narrow streets--but I should first
tell you something about this young German.

Gottfried Wolfgang was a young man of good family. He had studied for
some time at Gttingen, but being of a visionary and enthusiastic
character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines
which have so often bewildered German students. His secluded life, his
intense application, and the singular nature of his studies, had an
effect on both mind and body. His health was impaired; his imagination
diseased. He had been indulging in fanciful speculations on spiritual
essences, until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own
around him. He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that
there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit
seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition. Such an idea working
on his melancholy temperament produced the most gloomy effects. He
became haggard and desponding. His friends discovered the mental
malady preying upon him, and determined that the best cure was a
change of scene; he was sent, therefore, to finish his studies amidst
the splendors and gayeties of Paris.

Wolfgang arrived at Paris at the breaking out of the revolution. The
popular delirium at first caught his enthusiastic mind, and he was
captivated by the political and philosophical theories of the day: but
the scenes of blood which followed shocked his sensitive nature,
disgusted him with society and the world, and made him more than ever
a recluse. He shut himself up in a solitary apartment in the Pays
Latin, the quarter of students. There, in a gloomy street not far from
the monastic walls of the Sorbonne, he pursued his favorite
speculations. Sometimes he spend hours together in the great libraries
of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their
hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy
appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the
charnel-house of decayed literature.

Wolfgang, thought solitary and recluse, was of an ardent temperament,
but for a time it operated merely upon his imagination. He was too shy
and ignorant of the world to make any advances to the fair, but he was
a passionate admirer of female beauty, and in his lonely chamber would
often lose himself in reveries on forms and faces which he had seen,
and his fancy would deck out images of loveliness far surpassing the

While his mind was in this excited and sublimated state, a dream
produced an extraordinary effect upon him. It was of a female face of
transcendent beauty. So strong was the impression made, that he dreamt
of it again and again. It haunted his thoughts by day, his slumbers by
night; in fine, he became passionately enamored of this shadow of a
dream. This lasted so long that it became one of those fixed ideas
which haunt the minds of melancholy men, and are at times mistaken for

Such was Gottfried Wolfgang, and such his situation at the time I
mentioned. He was returning home late on stormy night, through some of
the old and gloomy streets of the Marais, the ancient part of Paris.
The loud claps of thunder rattled among the high houses of the narrow
streets. He came to the Place de Grve, the square, where public
executions are performed. The lightning quivered about the pinnacles
of the ancient Htel de Ville, and shed flickering gleams over the
open space in front. As Wolfgang was crossing the square, he shrank
back with horror at finding himself close by the guillotine. It was
the height of the reign of terror, when this dreadful instrument of
death stood ever ready, and its scaffold was continually running with
the blood of the virtuous and the brave. It had that very day been
actively employed in the work of carnage, and there it stood in grim
array, amidst a silent and sleeping city, waiting for fresh victims.

Wolfgang's heart sickened within him, and he was turning shuddering
from the horrible engine, when he beheld a shadowy form, cowering as
it were at the foot of the steps which led up to the scaffold. A
succession of vivid flashes of lightning revealed it more distinctly.
It was a female figure, dressed in black. She was seated on one of the
lower steps of the scaffold, leaning forward, her face hid in her lap;
and her long dishevelled tresses hanging to the ground, streaming with
the rain which fell in torrents. Wolfgang paused. There was something
awful in this solitary monument of woe. The female had the appearance
of being above the common order. He knew the times to be full of
vicissitude, and that many a fair head, which had once been pillowed
on down, now wandered houseless. Perhaps this was some poor mourner
whom the dreadful axe had rendered desolate, and who sat here heart-
broken on the strand of existence, from which all that was dear to her
had been launched into eternity.

He approached, and addressed her in the accents of sympathy. She
raised her head and gazed wildly at him. What was his astonishment at
beholding, by the bright glare of the lighting, the very face which
had haunted him in his dreams. It was pale and disconsolate, but
ravishingly beautiful.

Trembling with violent and conflicting emotions, Wolfgang again
accosted her. He spoke something of her being exposed at such an hour
of the night, and to the fury of such a storm, and offered to conduct
her to her friends. She pointed to the guillotine with a gesture of
dreadful signification.

"I have no friend on earth!" said she.

"But you have a home," said Wolfgang.

"Yes--in the grave!"

The heart of the student melted at the words.

"If a stranger dare make an offer," said he, "without danger of being
misunderstood, I would offer my humble dwelling as a shelter; myself
as a devoted friend. I am friendless myself in Paris, and a stranger
in the land; but if my life could be of service, it is at your
disposal, and should be sacrificed before harm or indignity should
come to you."

There was an honest earnestness in the young man's manner that had its
effect. His foreign accent, too, was in his favor; it showed him not
to be a hackneyed inhabitant of Paris. Indeed, there is an eloquence
in true enthusiasm that is not to be doubted. The homeless stranger
confided herself implicitly to the protection of the student.

He supported her faltering steps across the Pont Neuf, and by the
place where the statue of Henry the Fourth had been overthrown by the
populace. The storm had abated, and the thunder rumbled at a distance.
All Paris was quiet; that great volcano of human passion slumbered for
a while, to gather fresh strength for the next day's eruption. The
student conducted his charge through the ancient streets of the Pays
Latin, and by the dusky walls of the Sorbonne, to the great dingy
hotel which he inhabited. The old portress who admitted them stared
with surprise at the unusual sight of the melancholy Wolfgang, with a
female companion.

On entering his apartment, the student, for the first time, blushed at
the scantiness and indifference of his dwelling. He had but one
chamber--an old-fashioned saloon--heavily carved, and fantastically
furnished with the remains of former magnificence, for it was one of
those hotels in the quarter nobility. It was lumbered with books and
papers, and all the usual apparatus of a student, and his bed stood in
a recess at one end.

When lights were brought, and Wolfgang had a better opportunity of
contemplating the stranger, he was more than ever intoxicated by her
beauty. Her face was pale, but of a dazzling fairness, set off by a
profusion of raven hair that hung clustering about it. Her eyes were
large and brilliant, with a singular expression approaching almost to
wildness. As far as her black dress permitted her shape to be seen, it
was of perfect symmetry. Her whole appearance was highly striking,
though she was dressed in the simplest style. The only thing
approaching to an ornament which she wore, was a broad black band
round her neck, clasped by diamonds.

The perplexity now commenced with the student how to dispose of the
helpless being thus thrown upon his protection. He thought of
abandoning his chamber to her, and seeking shelter for himself
elsewhere. Still he was so fascinate by her charms, there seemed to be
such a spell upon his thoughts and senses, that he could not tear
himself from her presence. Her manner, too, was singular and
unaccountable. She spoke no more of the guillotine. Her grief had
abated. The attentions of the student had first won her confidence,
and then, apparently, her heart. She was evidently an enthusiast like
himself, and enthusiasts soon understand each other.

In the infatuation of the moment, Wolfgang avowed his passion for her.
He told her the story of his mysterious dream, and how she had
possessed his heart before he had even seen her. She was strangely
affected by his recital, and acknowledge to have felt an impulse
towards him equally unaccountable. It was the time for wild theory and
wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away;
everything was under the sway of the "Goddess of Reason." Among other
rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began
to be considered superfluous bonds for honorable minds. Social compact
were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of theorist not to be tainted by
the liberal doctrines of the day.

"Why should we separate?" said he: "our heart are united; in the eye
of reason and honor we are as one. What need is there of sordid forms
to bind high soul together?"

The stranger listened with emotion: she had evidently received
illumination at the same school.

"You have no home nor family," continued he: "Let me be everything to
you, or rather let us be everything to one another. if form is
necessary, form shall be observed--there is my hand. I pledge myself
to you forever."

"Forever?" said the stranger, solemnly.

"Forever!" repeated Wolfgang.

The stranger clasped the hand extended to her: "Then I am yours,"
murmured she, and sank upon his bosom.

The next morning the student left his bride sleeping, and sallied
forth at an early hour to seek more spacious apartments suitable to
the change in his situation. When he returned, he found the stranger
lying with her head hanging over the bed, and one arm thrown over it.
He spoke to her, but received no reply. He advanced to awaken her from
her uneasy posture. On taking her hand, it was cold--there was no
pulsation--her face was pallid and ghastly. In a word, she was a

Horrified and frantic, he alarmed the house. A scene of confusion
ensued. The police was summoned. As the officer of police entered the
room, he started back on beholding the corpse.

"Great heaven!" cried he, "how did this woman come here?"

"Do you know anything about her?" said Wolfgang eagerly.

"Do I?" exclaimed the officer: "she was guillotined yesterday."

He stepped forward; undid the black collar round the neck of the
corpse, and the head rolled on the floor!

The student burst into a frenzy. "The fiend! the fiend has gained
possession of me!" shrieked he; "I am lost forever."

They tried to soothe him, but in vain. He was possessed with the
frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to
ensnare him. He went distracted, and died in a mad-house.

Here the old gentleman with the haunted head finished his narrative.

"And is this really a fact?" said the inquisitive gentleman.

"A fact not to be doubted," replied the other. "I had it it from the
best authority. The student told it me himself. I saw him in a
mad-house in Paris."


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