Some three hundred years since, when the convent of Kreutzberg was in its glory, one of the monks who dwelt therein, wishing to ascertain something of the hereafter of those whose bodies lay all undecayed in the cemetery, visited it alone in the dead of night for the purpose of prosecuting his inquiries on that fearful subject. As he opened the trap-door of the vault a light burst from below; but deeming it to be only the lamp of the sacristan, the monk drew back and awaited his departure concealed behind the high altar. The sacristan emerged not, however, from the opening; and the monk, tired of waiting, approached, and finally descended the rugged steps which led into the dreary depths. No sooner had he set foot on the lowermost stair, than the well-known scene underwent a complete transformation in his eyes. He had long been accustomed to visit the vault, and whenever the sacristan went thither, he was almost sure to be with him. He therefore knew every part of it as well as he did the interior of his own narrow cell, and the arrangement of its contents was perfectly familiar to his eyes. What, then, was his horror to perceive that this arrangement, which even but that morning had come under his observation as usual, was altogether altered, and a new and wonderful one substituted in its stead.
A dim lurid light pervaded the desolate abode of darkness, and it just sufficed to give to his view a sight of the most singular description.
On each side of him the dead but imperishable bodies of the long-buried brothers of the convent sat erect in their lidless coffins, their cold, starry eyes glaring at him with lifeless rigidity, their withered fingers locked together on their breasts, their stiffened limbs motionless and still. It was a sight to petrify the stoutest heart; and the monk’s quailed before it, though he was a philosopher, and a sceptic to boot. At the upper end of the vault, at a rude table formed of a decayed coffin, or something which once served the same purpose, sat three monks. They were the oldest corses in the charnel-house, for the inquisitive brother knew their faces well; and the cadaverous hue of their cheeks seemed still more cadaverous in the dim light shed upon them, while their hollow eyes gave forth what looked to him like flashes of flame. A large book lay open before one of them, and the others bent over the rotten table as if in intense pain, or in deep and fixed attention. No word was said; no sound was heard; the vault was as silent as the grave, its awful tenants still as statues.
Fain would the curious monk have receded from this horrible place; fain would he have retraced his steps and sought again his cell; fain would he have shut his eyes to the fearful scene; but he could not stir from the spot, he felt rooted there; and though he once succeeded in turning his eyes to the entrance of the vault, to his infinite surprise and dismay he could not discover where it lay, nor perceive any possible means of exit. He stood thus for some time. At length the aged monk at the table beckoned him to advance. With slow tottering steps he made his way to the group, and at length stood in front of the table, while the other monks raised their heads and glanced at him with a fixed, lifeless look that froze the current of his blood. He knew not what to do; his senses were fast forsaking him; Heaven seemed to have deserted him for his incredulity. In this moment of doubt and fear he bethought him of a prayer, and as he proceeded he felt himself becoming possessed of a confidence he had before unknown. He looked on the book before him. It was a large volume, bound in black, and clasped with bands of gold, with fastenings of the same metal. It was inscribed at the top of each page
He could read no further. He then looked, first in the eyes of him before whom it lay open, and then in those of his fellows. He finally glanced around the vault on the corpses who filled every visible coffin in its dark and spacious womb. Speech came to him, and resolution to use it. He addressed himself to the awful beings in whose presence he stood, in the words of one having authority with them.
“Pax vobis,” ’twas thus he spake—”Peace be to ye.”
“Hic nulla pax,” replied an aged monk, in a hollow, tremulous tone, baring his breast the while—”Here is no peace.”
He pointed to his bosom as he spoke, and the monk, casting his eye upon it, beheld his heart within surrounded by living fire, which seemed to feed on it but not consume it. He turned away in affright, but ceased not to prosecute his inquiries.
“Pax vobis, in nomine Domini,” he spake again—”Peace be to ye, in the name of the Lord.”
“Hic non pax,” the hollow and heartrending tones of the ancient monk who sat at the right of the table were heard to answer.
On glancing at the bared bosom of this hapless being also the same sight was exhibited—the heart surrounded by a devouring flame, but still remaining fresh and unconsumed under its operation. Once more the monk turned away and addressed the aged man in the centre.
“Pax vobis, in nomine Domini,” he proceeded.
At these words the being to whom they were addressed raised his head, put forward his hand, and closing the book with a loud clap, said—
“Speak on. It is yours to ask, and mine to answer.”
The monk felt reassured, and his courage rose with the occasion.
“Who are ye?” he inquired; “who may ye be?”
“We know not!” was the answer, “alas! we know not!”
“We know not, we know not!” echoed in melancholy tones the denizens of the vault.
“What do ye here?” pursued the querist.
“We await the last day, the day of the last judgment! Alas for us! woe! woe!”
“Woe! woe!” resounded on all sides.
The monk was appalled, but still he proceeded.
“What did ye to deserve such doom as this? What may your crime be that deserves such dole and sorrow?”
As he asked the question the earth shook under him, and a crowd of skeletons uprose from a range of graves which yawned suddenly at his feet.
“These are our victims,” answered the old monk. “They suffered at our hands. We suffer now, while they are at peace; and we shall suffer.”
“For how long?” asked the monk.
“For ever and ever!” was the answer.
“For ever and ever, for ever and ever!” died along the vault.
“May God have mercy on us!” was all the monk could exclaim.
The skeletons vanished, the graves closing over them. The aged men disappeared from his view, the bodies fell back in their coffins, the light fled, and the den of death was once more enveloped in its usual darkness.
On the monk’s revival he found himself lying at the foot of the altar. The grey dawn of a spring morning was visible, and he was fain to retire to his cell as secretly as he could, for fear he should be discovered.
From thenceforth he eschewed vain philosophy, says the legend, and, devoting his time to the pursuit of true knowledge, and the extension of the power, greatness, and glory of the Church, died in the odour of sanctity, and was buried in that holy vault, where his body is still visible.
Requiescat in pace!