Seven Legends by Gottfried Keller

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

Deut. xxii. 5.

When women renounce their ambition of beauty, grace, and womanly charm in order to distinguish themselves in other directions, it often ends in their disguising themselves in men’s clothes and disappearing from the scene.

The desire to ape the man often emerges even in the pious legendary world of early Christianity, and more than one female saint of those days was impelled by the desire to free herself from the common round of home and society.

The refined Roman maiden Eugenia offers an example of this kind, with, it must be owned, the not unusual result, that, reduced to the greatest extremity by her masculine predilections, she was forced after all to summon up the resources of her proper sex in order to save herself.

She was the daughter of a Roman gentleman who resided with his family at Alexandria, a city which swarmed with philosophers and learned men of every description. Accordingly, Eugenia was very carefully educated and instructed, and this was so much to her taste that, as soon as ever she began to grow up, she frequented all schools of philosophers, grammarians and rhetoricians as a student. In those visits she was always attended by a body-guard of two good-looking lads of her own age. They were the sons of two of her father’s freedmen, who had been brought up in her company and made to share in all her studies.

Meanwhile she became the fairest maiden that could be found, and her youthful companions, who, strangely enough, were both named Hyacinth, grew likewise to two graceful flowers of youth. Wherever the lovely rose Eugenia appeared, the two Hyacinths were always to be seen rustling along on her right hand and her left, or following gracefully in her train while their mistress maintained a discussion with them as they followed.

Never were there two better bred companions of a blue-stocking; for they were never of a different opinion from Eugenia, and they always kept a shade behind her in learning, so that she was in the right in every instance, and was never uneasy lest she should say something less clever than her companions.

All the bookworms of Alexandria composed elegies and epigrams on this apparition of the Muses, and the good Hyacinths had to inscribe these verses carefully in golden tablets, and carry them after her.

Every season she became more beautiful and more accomplished, and she had even begun to stray in the mysterious labyrinths of Neoplatonic doctrines, when the young proconsul Aquilinus became enamoured of Eugenia and demanded her of her father to wife. But the latter entertained such a respect for his daughter that, despite his authority as a Roman father, he did not venture to make the slightest suggestion to her, but referred the suitor to her own decision, although no son-in-law could have been more welcome to him than Aquilinus.

But Eugenia herself had had her eye upon him secretly for many a long day; for he was the most stately, most illustrious, and most gallant man in Alexandria, and, what was more, had the reputation of a man of intelligence and heart.

Yet she received the enamoured consul in complete calm and dignity, with her parchment rolls about her, and her Hyacinths behind her chair. The one wore an azure-blue, the other a rose-red, robe, and she herself one of dazzling white. A stranger would have been uncertain whether he saw three fair, tender boys, or three fresh, blooming maidens before him.

Before this tribunal the manly Aquilinus now came in the simple toga of his rank. He would much rather have uttered his passion in more intimate and tender fashion; but, when he saw that Eugenia did not dismiss the young men, he took his seat on a chair facing her, and made his request for her hand in words which it cost him an effort to make few and simple, for he kept his eyes fixed immovably upon her, and beheld her great beauty.

Eugenia smiled imperceptibly, and never even blushed, so tightly had learning and culture fettered all the finer impulses of ordinary life in her. Instead, she assumed a serious, profound expression, and made answer to him, “Thy wish, O Aquilinus, to have me for thy wife, honours me in a high degree, but is powerless to induce me to an act of unwisdom; and such it would justly be termed, if we were to follow the first crude impulse without examining ourselves. The first condition which I have to demand from a husband, whoever he be, is that he understand and honour and participate in my intellectual life and aims. So thou wilt be welcome to me if thou choosest to be often in my society, and to exercise thyself in emulation with these my young companions in the investigation of the highest things along with me. By this means we shall not fail to ascertain whether we are suited for each other or not, and, after a period of intellectual activity in common, we shall know each other so as beseems god-created beings who are meant to walk not in the darkness, but in the light.”

To this high-flown demand Aquilinus answered, not without secret indignation, but still with proud tranquillity, “If I did not know thee, Eugenia, I would not desire thee for my wife; and, as to myself, great Rome knows me, as well as this province. If thy learning does not suffice to recognize what I am by this time, I fear it will never suffice. Besides, I did not come here to go to school again, but to find a helpmeet; and, as for these two children, my first request, if thou gavest me thy hand, would be that thou wouldest let them go and restore them to their parents at last, that they might help them and be of use to them. Now I entreat thee, give me thy decision, not as a person of learning, but as a woman of flesh and blood!”

This time the fair she-philosopher had indeed turned red, red as a carnation, and said with fast-beating heart, “My answer is soon given, for I gather from thy words that thou dost not love me, Aquilinus. That might be a matter of indifference to me, were it not an outrage for the daughter of a noble Roman to be lied to!”

“I never lie!” said Aquilinus coldly. “Farewell!”

Eugenia turned her back without returning his farewell, and Aquilinus walked slowly out of the house to his own abode. She tried to take up her books as if nothing had happened; but the letters grew blurred before her eyes, and the two Hyacinths had to read to her while she, full of hot indignation, wandered with her thoughts elsewhere.

For, although up to that day she had regarded the consul as the only one among all her suitors whom she might have taken for a husband, supposing she had been so inclined, he was now become a stone of stumbling which she could not get over.

Aquilinus for his part attended calmly to his affairs of state, and sighed in secret over his strange folly, which would not suffer him to forget the pedantic beauty.

Almost two years passed, during which Eugenia became, if possible, more and more notable and a positively brilliant personage, while the two Hyacinths were now two sturdy rustic figures with growing beards. Although people everywhere began to take notice of this strange attachment, and, instead of the admiring epigrams, others in a more satiric vein began to appear, still she could not bring herself to part with her body-guard; for Aquilinus, who had presumed to order her to do so, was still there. He went quietly on his own way, and appeared to concern himself no more about her; but he looked at no other woman, and no other wooing was heard of, so that he also came in for censure, because, being so high an official, he remained unmarried.

Eugenia refrained all the more obstinately from offering any outward sign of reconciliation by dismissing her obnoxious companions. Besides, she was charmed to set ordinary custom and public opinion at defiance and be responsible to herself alone, and to preserve the consciousness of a pure life in circumstances which would have been perilous and impossible for any other woman.

Such eccentricities were in the air just at that time.

All the time Eugenia felt herself anything but well and happy. Her well-trained servitors must needs philosophize through heaven and earth and hell, only to be suddenly interrupted and forced to wander about in the country with her for hours together without being favoured with a single word. One day she was seized with the desire to make an excursion to a country-seat. She herself drove the carriage, and was in an amiable mood, for it was a bright spring day, and the air was full of balmy fragrance. The Hyacinths were delighted at her good humour. So they made their way through a country suburb where the Christians were permitted to hold their worship. They were in the act of celebrating Sunday; from the chapel of a monastery came the tones of a devout hymn. Eugenia checked her horses to listen, and caught the words of the psalm, “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God. My soul is athirst for the living God.”

At the sound of these words, sung by humble pious lips, her artificial life was made simple at last; her heart was touched, and seemed to realize what it desired; and slowly, without a word, she went on her way to the country-house. There she secretly put on men’s clothes, signed to the two Hyacinths to come with her, and left the house unobserved by the menials. She went back to the convent, knocked at the door, and presented herself and her companions to the abbot as three young men who desired to be received into the convent that they might bid farewell to the world and live for eternity. Thanks to her good training, she was able to answer the abbot’s searching questions so cleverly that he received all three, whom he could not help taking for refined and distinguished persons, into the convent, and permitted them to assume the monastic habit.

Eugenia made a beautiful, almost angelic, monk, and was called Brother Eugenius, while the two Hyacinths found themselves transformed for better or worse into monks; for they were never even consulted, and they had long been accustomed only to live according to the will of their female paragon. Still, they did not find the monkish life amiss; they enjoyed incomparably more peaceful days, did not require to study any more, and found no difficulty in surrendering themselves entirely to a passive obedience.

Brother Eugenius, on the other hand, did not remain idle, but became a notable monk, his visage white as marble, but with glowing eyes and the presence of an archangel. He converted many heathen, tended the sick and destitute, became profound in the Scriptures, preached in a golden bell-like voice, and on the abbot’s death was actually chosen to be his successor. So now the tender Eugenia became abbot over seventy good monks, great and small.

During the time that she and her companions were thus mysteriously vanished and were nowhere to be found, her father had made enquiries at an oracle as to what had become of his daughter, and it answered that Eugenia had been taken away by the gods and placed among the stars. For the priests utilized the event to contrive a miracle as a counterblast to the Christians, who all the time had the bird safely caged. They went so far as to point out a star in the firmament with two smaller stars adjacent as the new constellation, and the Alexandrians stood in the streets and on their house-tops to gaze at it, while many, who had formerly seen her going in and out, recalled her beauty, became enamoured of her memory, and looked up with moist eyes to the star, which swam placidly in the purple sky.

Aquilinus too looked up; but he shook his head and was not altogether satisfied about the business. The father of the vanished maiden was all the more obstinate in his credence, felt himself not a little exalted, and contrived, with the support of the priests, to have a statue erected and divine honours decreed to Eugenia. Aquilinus, from whom official sanction had to be obtained, granted it subject to the condition that the image should be made an exact likeness of the ravished one. That was easily accomplished, as there was quite a collection of busts and portraits of her in existence, and so her statue in marble was set up in the fore-court of the temple of Minerva, and challenged the inspection of gods and mortals, for, in spite of being a speaking likeness, it was an ideal work in features, pose, and drapery.

When this news was discussed among the seventy monks of the convent, they were bitterly chagrined at the trump card played by the heathen, as well as at the erection of a new idol and the shameless worship of a mortal woman. Their most violent objurgations were showered upon the woman herself as a runagate and juggling impostor, and they made a most unaccustomed noise during their midday meal. The Hyacinths, who had become two good little priestlings and had their abbot’s secret concealed in their hearts, glanced significantly towards him, but he signed to them to keep silence, and suffered the outcry and abuse to pass as a penance for his former heathenish sinful mind.

But when that night was half run, Eugenia rose from her couch, took a heavy hammer, and went softly out of the convent to find the statue and break it in pieces. She easily found her way to the quarter of the city, all glistening with marble, where the temples and public buildings were situated, and where she had passed her youth. Not a soul stirred in the silent world of marble. Just as the female monk ascended the steps to the temple, the moon rose above the shadows of the city, and cast her beams as bright as day among the pillars of the fore-court. There Eugenia saw her statue, white as new-fallen snow, standing in wonderful grace and beauty, the finely-folded draperies chastely drawn over the shoulders, and looking straight forward with rapt eye and gently-smiling mouth.

Full of curiosity the Christian advanced towards it, the hammer uplifted in her hand; but a sweet shudder went through her heart when she obtained a clear view of the statue. She let the hammer sink, and breathlessly fed her gaze on the vision of her own former existence. A bitter regret took possession of her, a feeling as if she had been thrust out of a fairer world and was now wandering an unhappy shade in the wilderness. For although the image was elevated to the ideal, still the very ideal represented Eugenia’s genuine inner nature, which had only been obscured by her pedantry, and it was a nobler emotion than vanity which now led her to recognize her better self by the magical moonlight. She suddenly felt as if she had played the wrong card–to use a modern expression; for, of course, there were no cards in those days.

Suddenly the quick step of a man was heard. Eugenia hid herself involuntarily in the shadow of a pillar, and saw the tall form of Aquilinus approaching. She saw how he stationed himself before the statue, gazed long upon it, and finally flung his arm about its neck to imprint a light kiss upon the marble lips. Then he wrapped himself in his mantle and slowly departed, more than once turning round to gaze at the gleaming image. Eugenia trembled so violently that she could feel her agitation. Full of wrath and violence, she gathered herself together and once again advanced toward the statue with uplifted hammer to make an end of the sinful maumet; but, instead of shattering the beauteous head, she burst into tears as she too imprinted a kiss upon its lips, then hastened away, for she could hear the steps of the night-watch. With heaving bosom, she slipped into her cell, and slept none that night until the sun arose, when, absenting herself from early prayers, she dreamt in rapid succession of things which had nothing in common with her devotions.

The monks respected their abbot’s sleep as the result of spiritual vigils. But at last they were obliged to interrupt Eugenia’s slumbers, as there was important business for her to attend to. A widow of rank, who professed to be lying sick and in need of Christian aid, had sent requesting the ghostly comfort and counsel of abbot Eugenius, whose deeds and person she had long revered. The monks did not wish to let slip this conquest, which would help the fame of their church, and they wakened Eugenia. Half dazed, with handsomely reddened cheeks, such as she had not been seen with for many a day, she set out, her thoughts in her morning dreams and the pillars of the midnight temple rather than in the business before her. She entered the heathen lady’s house, and was conducted to her room and left alone with her. A beautiful woman, not yet thirty years old, was lying stretched upon a couch; but, so far from being sick and contrite, she was full of assurance and vitality. She could scarcely behave herself with bare quietness and modesty until the supposed monk, at her direction, had taken his seat close beside her; then she caught both his white hands, pressed her brow upon them, and covered them with kisses. Eugenia, who, absorbed in far other thoughts, had not observed the woman’s unsaintly appearance, and had taken her behaviour for humility and pious devotion, let her have her way; and the heathen, thus encouraged, flung her arms about Eugenia’s neck, imagining that she was embracing the handsomest of young monks. In short, before he was aware, he found himself clasped tight by the amorous creature, and felt his mouth the target for a storm of passionate kisses. Completely dumbfounded, Eugenia awoke at last from her reverie; and even then it was some minutes before she could disengage herself from that wild embrace and rise to her feet.

But at the same instant the heathen Satan’s tongue began to wag. In a storm of words the she-devil declared her love and desire to the indignant abbot, and sought by all manner of means to impress upon him that it was the duty of his youth and loveliness to assuage her desires, and that he was there for no other purpose. She did not fail to accompany her words with fresh assaults and tender allurements, so that Eugenia was scarcely able to defend herself. At last she rallied herself in indignation, and with flaming eyes read the shameless woman such a lesson and so answered her with such vigorous denunciations as only a monk has at command, that the latter recognized that her wicked intentions had failed, changed her tone in a twinkling, and took the way of escape which was once taken by Potiphar’s wife, and has been taken a hundred and a thousand times since. She sprang like a tigress on Eugenia, clasped her again with arms like steel, pulled her down to her upon the couch, and at the same time set up such an outcry that her maids came running into the room from all quarters.

“Help! Help!” she screamed. “This man will force me!” And at the same time she released Eugenia, who got to her feet breathless, confused and horrified.

The women who had rushed to the rescue straightway screamed more desperately than their mistress, hastened hither and thither, and called for male assistance. Eugenia could not utter a word for horror; but made her escape from the house full of shame and disgust, followed by the outcries and curses of the infuriated rabble.

The fiendish widow lost no time in proceeding at once with a goodly following to the consul Aquilinus, and accusing the monk of the most disgraceful crime, to wit that he had come hypocritically to her house, first of all to molest her with efforts for her conversion, and, when these failed, to rob her of her honour by violence. Since all her following testified to the truth of her assertion, the indignant Aquilinus immediately caused the convent to be surrounded by troops, and the abbot along with his monks to be brought before him for trial.

“Is this what you do, you low hypocrites?” he said in severe tones. “Are you so high-fed, you who are barely tolerated, that you must needs assault our women-folk, and prowl about like ravening wolves? Did your Master, whom I honour more than I do you liars, teach or command you such things? Not at all! You are a gang, a horde of wretches, who assume a name in public that you may abandon yourselves to corruption in secret. Defend yourselves against the charge, if you can!”

The infamous widow then repeated her lying tale, interrupted by hypocritical sighs and tears. When she had finished and had wrapped herself again demurely in her veil, the monks glanced fearfully at one another and at their abbot, of whose virtue they had no doubt, and they raised their voices with one accord to repel the false accusation. But not only the numerous menials of the lying woman, but also several neighbours and passers-by, who had seen the abbot leaving the house full of shame and confusion and who had thereupon taken him for guilty, now came forward and testified one after the other with loud voices to the fact of the crime, so that the poor monks were shouted down ten times over.

Now they glanced once more, this time full of doubt, at their abbot, and his very youth suddenly appeared suspicious to the greybeards among them. They exclaimed that, if he were guilty, God’s judgement would not be backward, no more than they were backward in abandoning him there and then to the secular arm!

The eyes of all were now directed upon Eugenia, who stood forsaken amid the throng. She had been lying weeping in her cell when she was arrested with the monks, and had stood all that time, her eyes downcast and her cowl drawn deep down over her head, and felt herself in a most awkward predicament. For, if she preserved the secret of her family and sex, she would succumb to this false testimony, while, if she revealed it, the storm would break out against the convent more furiously than ever, and she would devote it to destruction, since a convent which had a beautiful young woman for abbot was bound to become the butt of the most unholy suspicion and mockery on the part of the malicious heathen world. She would not have experienced this timidity and indecision had she still had a pure heart, according to monkish notions; but the events of the previous night had already made a division in her mind, and her unfortunate encounter with the wicked woman had only increased her wavering, so that she no longer possessed the courage to step forward with determination and bring about a miracle.

Yet, when Aquilinus called upon her to speak, she remembered his former tenderness for her, and, as she had confidence in him, she hit upon a way of escape. In gentle and modest tones she said that she was not guilty and would prove it to the consul, if she might speak with him alone. The sound of her voice moved Aquilinus, though he knew not why, and he acceded to her request to speak with him in private. He accordingly had her conducted into his house, and repaired alone with her into a room. Then Eugenia fixed her eyes upon him, threw back her cowl and said, “I am Eugenia, whom you once desired for your wife.”

He recognized her at once, and was convinced that it was she; but at the same time a great anger and a burning jealousy rose up within his breast to think that the lost one so suddenly recovered should make her appearance as a woman who had been living all that time in secrecy with seventy monks. He therefore restrained himself with a violent effort and scrutinized her narrowly, while he made as if he did not believe her assertion in the slightest, and said, “You certainly do seem rather like that infatuated young woman. But that does not concern me; I am much more anxious to know what you did to the widow!”

Eugenia shyly and anxiously told all that had passed, and from the whole tone of her story Aquilinus perceived the falsehood and malice of the accusation, yet he answered with apparent indifference, “But if you are Eugenia, then how did you contrive to become a monk? What was your intention, and how was it possible?”

At these words, Eugenia blushed and looked on the ground in embarrassment. Still, it seemed to her not so unpleasant after all to be there, and to be talking once again with a good old acquaintance about herself and her adventures. So she lost no time, but told in unstudied words all that had happened to her since her disappearance, except, strangely enough, that she never uttered a syllable about the two Hyacinths. Her hearer found the story not unsatisfactory, only every minute made it harder for him to conceal his appreciation of the recovered fair one. But nevertheless he controlled himself, and determined to see the matter out to the end and to ascertain from her subsequent behaviour whether he had the old Eugenia before him, with her chaste and pure manners.

So he said, “All that is a well told story: still, in spite of her eccentricities, I do not consider that the maiden you pretend to be was capable of such very astonishing adventures. At least, the real Eugenia would certainly have preferred to become a nun. For how in the world can a monk’s cowl and living among seventy monks be a merit and salvation for any woman, even the most learned and pious? No, I still hold to my opinion that you are a smooth-faced beardless fellow of an impostor, whom I don’t trust in the slightest! Besides, Eugenia has been proclaimed as deified and dwelling among the stars; her image stands where it was dedicated in the temple, and it will go hard enough with you if you persist in your slanderous assertion.”

“A certain man kissed that image last night,” retorted Eugenia in a low voice, casting a curious look at the disconcerted Aquilinus, who gazed upon her as upon one inspired with superhuman wisdom. “How can the same man torture the original?”

But he mastered his confusion, appeared not to hear her words, and continued, coldly and severely, “In one word, for the honour of the poor Christian monks, who appear to me to be innocent, I cannot and will not believe that you are a woman. Prepare yourself for judgement, for your statements have not satisfied me.”

At that Eugenia exclaimed, “Then God help me!” and, rending her monk’s frock in twain, pale as a white rose, she collapsed in shame and despair. But Aquilinus caught her in his arms, pressed her to his heart, and wrapped her in his mantle, while his tears fell upon her lovely head; for he was convinced that she was an honourable woman. He carried her into the next room, where there was a richly furnished guest-bed, laid her gently down in it and covered her to the chin with purple coverlets. Then he kissed her on the lips, perhaps three or four times, went out, and locked the door securely. Next he picked up the monk’s frock, which lay still warm on the floor, and betook himself again to the waiting throng outside, and addressed them thus, “These are strange happenings! You monks are innocent and may go to your convent. Your abbot was a demon who would have ruined you or seduced you. Here! Take his frock with you and hang it somewhere for a memorial; for, after he had changed his form in the oddest fashion before my eyes, he dissolved into nothing before these same eyes, and vanished without a trace. As for this woman of whom the demon made use in order to ruin you, she is under suspicion of witchcraft and must be put in prison. Now begone all of you to your homes, and behave yourselves!”

All were astounded at this allocution, and gazed fearfully at the demon’s garment. The widow turned pale and veiled her face, and by so doing made ample betrayal of her bad conscience. The good monks rejoiced over their victory and retired most thankfully with the empty husk, little suspecting what a sweet kernel had been hidden within it. The widow was cast into prison, and Aquilinus summoned his most faithful servant and went through the city, sought out merchants, and purchased a perfect load of the most expensive female attire, which the slave had to convey to the house as secretly and quickly as possible.

Softly the consul slipped into the chamber where Eugenia lay, seated himself on the edge of her bed, and saw that she was sleeping quite contentedly, like one recovering from difficulties undergone. He could not help laughing at the black pile of her shorn monk’s head, and passed a gentle hand over the thick, short hair. Thereupon she awoke and opened her eyes.

“Will you be my wife now, at last?” he enquired gently; whereupon she said neither Yes nor No, but shivered a little beneath the purple coverlets in which she lay wrapped.

Then Aquilinus brought in all the clothes and ornaments that a fine lady required in those days to array herself from head to foot, and left her.

After sundown that same day, he took her with him, attended only by his faithful servant, to one of his country-houses, which lay in a secluded and charming situation amid the shade of thick trees.

In the country-house, the pair now celebrated their nuptials with the utmost privacy; and, for as long as it had been until they found each other again, still no time seemed to have been lost, rather they felt the most hearty thankfulness for the good fortune which had preserved them for each other. Aquilinus devoted the days to his official business, and at night drove as fast as horses could take him home to his wife. Only now and again on unkindly, stormy, wet days, he loved to hasten back earlier than he was expected to the country-house to cheer Eugenia.

Without making many words about it, she now devoted herself to the study of connubial love and fidelity, with the same thoroughness and perseverance which she had formerly spent upon philosophy and Christian discipline. But, when her hair had grown again to its proper length, Aquilinus, having devised a cunning fable, took his spouse at last back to Alexandria, brought her to her astonished parents, and celebrated a brilliant wedding.

Her father was certainly surprised to find his daughter again, not as an immortal goddess and a heavenly constellation, but as a beloved, earthly, wedded wife, and it was with regret that he saw the consecrated statue removed from the temple; but, to his praise, his disappointment was overcome by his fondness for his living daughter, who now proved fairer and more lovable than ever. The marble statue Aquilinus set in the finest room in his house; but he refrained from kissing it again, now that he had the warm, living original to his hand.

After Eugenia had investigated the nature of marriage to her satisfaction, she applied her experience to converting her spouse to Christianity, which she still continued to profess; and she did not rest until Aquilinus had made public acknowledgement of his adhesion to her faith. The legend goes on to relate how the whole family returned to Rome about the time when that enemy of the Christians, Valerian, came to the throne; and how, during the persecutions which then broke out, Eugenia added to her fame that of a famous heroine of the faith and martyr, and then only made full manifestation of her great strength of soul.

Her influence over Aquilinus had become so great that she was able to bring the two clerics, the Hyacinths, with her from Alexandria to Rome, where they also won the martyr’s crown at the same time as she. Her intercession is said to be specially efficacious for dull school-girls who are backward in their studies.