Pandemic in Vienna

From Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals (1845–46)

George W.M. Reynolds

The following story is taken from G.W.M. Reynolds’s novel Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals, which was serialised in the London Journal between 1845–46. The novel is based upon the centuries-old German folktale of Faust, who sells his soul to Satan to enjoy luxury and fame on earth for a limited period, after which demons drag him to Hell. Although a sympathetic character in adaptations written by the likes of Christopher Marlowe, in Reynolds’s novel Faust is a gothic villain who enjoys exercising the power he has. Having been wronged by the hero, Count Otto of Vienna, Faust determines to punish the city and asks his demon-companion to see it done. The Demon decides that he will bring a pestilence upon the city and Faust, unaware that the Demon is planning a pestilence, watches in horror as miasmatic vapours envelop the Austrian capital.

This extract is taken from the “Dicks English Library” edition published in 1884.

***

Almost at the same hour in the morning at which the confession and death of the physician took place at the house of Otto Pianalla, two tall forms stood on the summit of the Kalenberg,—that hill from which, nearly two centuries afterwards, the troops of Sobieski, King of Poland, rushed down upon the army of the Grand Vizier, Kara Mustapha, and delivered Vienna from the siege of the Ottomans.

Of those two persons, though both bore the human shape, yet only was human.

“Repeat thy wishes here,” said the Demon, in his deep sonorous voice, as he turned his eyes of supernal but sinister lustre upon Faust. “It is not for me to search into thy motives: but I am ready to obey thy commands.”

“These, then, are my Wishes—these are my commands,’’ exclaimed Faust, who was in a state of extraordinary mental excitement:—“by means of thine infernal power thou wilt perform some deed that shall avert the attention of Vienna from the everyday pursuits of life—that shall paralyse public affairs and private arrangements—that shall cause even lovers to forget their hopes of being immediately united at the altar!”

You command me to do a fearful thing, Faust,” said the Demon. “Reflect for a moment—I would not have you reproach me hereafter!”

“I am decided—delay not, whatever be the conse quences!” cried the Count, impatiently.

“One word ere the order go forth!” observed the Demon. Hast thou forgotten the whirlwind which I raised on the heights of the Brocken, and which devastated whole provinces in Germany?”

“I have forgotten nothing of all that,” answered Faust, “and would that I could act now without recurrence to thy ferocious and infernal powers! But question me no farther—hesitate no longer! I care not what convulsion of nature—what awful visitation thou mayest bring about: only let not the result of thy command be temporary:—let it endure for weeks—ay, for months and months—so that it paralyse all the usual proceedings of society in this part of the world!”

“Thou shalt be obeyed!” cried the Demon.

Then, turning his face towards the East, he extended his right arm, and chanted the following incantation:—

“Come hither, fatal Cloud of Death!

O’er Europe roll with blasting breath;

Leave for awhile thy lov’d Japan;

Sweep o’er the heights of Kimengshan;

In Tartary, thou shalt not stay,

Nor rest o’er Persia in thy way:

Stop not on Ganges’ bank to free

From funeral pyre the dark Suttee;

Let the Affghan unperill’d roam,

Nor pause to touch the Tartar’s home;

Spare them that dwell upon the Nile;

Leave harmless each Ionian isle;—

But all thy power and fury bring

To Europe, on death-dealing wing:

Cover the land with corpse so’er

From Greece to Scandinavia’s shore.

Let Turkey wail, and Russia groan,

And Italy give back the moan;

Let Germany thy presence know,

And France take up the tale of woe:—

Let not the lofty Pyrenees

From Spain ward off th’envenom’d breeze:

Rest on the Tagus for awhile,—

Then seek the Briton’s sea-girt isle!”

When the Demon began to speak, Faust kept his eyes steadfastly fixed upon the East, towards which quarter the fiend addressed his terrible incantation. In a few minutes a thin vapour appeared to rise in the oriental horizon;[1] and it gradually—gradually advanced towards Vienna—becoming every instant more palpable, and losing that transparency which was merely an appearance given to it by distance.

Onward it came—nearer and nearer,—expanding in volume—spreading itself out, with strange elasticity, over meadow, grove, village, town, plain, and hill,——until it seemed one vast cloud, whose extremities touched the horizon on either side.

And onward—onward still it came; and now it approached the neighbourhood of Vienna—it swept over the Kalenberg, enveloping Faust and the Demon in a dense yellow mist.

But that mist!–how feculent was its odour—how nauseating the taste it created in the mouth—how oppressive its noxious density!

Faust trembled—he dared not ask the meaning of this strange and awe-inspiring visitation.

By the time the chant was concluded the mist had over spread the city and the country all around; and the air was as dark as if there was an eclipse of the sun.

The Demon’s sonorous voice had ceased—and Faust beheld with appalling misgivings the first result of the incantation.

The plague hits Vienna (Basdeo Personal Collection)

In a few moments the mist began to clear away from the eastern quarter: it was advancing westward—a huge and almost endless volume of dense and nauseating fog.

Onward still it went: by degrees it departed from all the territory which the eye could command east of the Kalenberg; and fast—fast it now rolled towards the west.

At length it began to diminish in bulk as it proceeded farther and farther in its course: again did it lose its appearance of denseness and its deep yellow hue—seeming more and more transparent as it receded towards the Atlantic.

From the moment that the incantation commenced until the mist appeared no larger than the palm of the hand in the western horizon, scarcely ten minutes had elapsed;—but those ten minutes appeared an age to the Count of Aurana.

“Fiend, what dread visitation is this?” he exclaimed, unable to endure any longer that torturing state of suspense. ‘

“A visitation called forth in obedience to thy wishes,” answered the Demon, in a malignant tone of triumph;—a visitation evoked from the east, where it would have remained but for thy command!”

“And this visitation P” cried Faust: “what is it? What meant that horrible mist? what hast thou done to Vienna?”

“I have obeyed thee faithfully, Faust,” replied the Demon: “society will now be paralysed indeed;—for the Plague is in Europe—the Black Death has already commenced its ravages in Vienna!”

“Fiend—demon! undo thine awful work!” exclaimed Faust, appalled at the terrible words which fell upon his ears.”

“No—it is too late!” answered the Demon calmly, “did I not bid thee reflect? Blame not me! It is thou who hast done it all!”

And with folded arms he began to descend the mountain with slow and measured steps.

“Ah! wretch—monster that I am!” almost shrieked Faust, dashing his open palm against his forehead:—then, after a few moments’ agonising hesitation, he rushed frantically down the hill, and entered the plague stricken city.

*

Yes:—fatal indeed was the incantation of the Demon—for the Black Death had suddenly manifested its terrible presence in Vienna!

When Faust re-entered the imperial city, he observed horror and dismay depicted upon the countenances of the inhabitants whom he met in the streets.

And those persons were not walking along with the usual appearance of security and confidence:—they were hurrying hither and thither,—pausing only to cross themselves at the doors of churches, or as they passed the niches in the walls where images of the saints were placed; then rushing wildly on until they reached the houses of the physicians of whom they were in quest.

Oh! how happy was he who found the medical attendant at home, and could prevail upon him to accompany him to his own house where a wife, a mother, a child, or other dear relative had suddenly been assailed by a pestilential malady!

And how horrible were the wailings of those who found no physicians disengaged, or who, having found them, vainly essayed prayers and threats to induce them to visit the plague-stricken victims!

For that dense cloud which had passed over Europe, was seen and even felt in Vienna, as elsewhere; and while it was still lingering over the city, men, women, and children were suddenly assailed with fearful symptoms,—struck down as it were by a flash of lightning that scared and scorched without killing them on the spot:—then, when the noxious mist had rolled away, rumour, with its myriad tongues, circulated from house to house, and street to street, the dread news how here and there those symptoms had appeared;—and in one short hour after the going forth of the infernal incantation from the heights of the Kalenberg, Vienna knew that the plague had seized upon its very heart!

And this plague, too, was of so malignant—so terrible a nature, that no other mortal scourge was known to possess such death-dealing influences. For, a hundred and sixty years before the period of which we are now writing, this same plague had ravaged Europe, and had carried off two-thirds of the entire population. Hence had that visitation received the terribly significant name of the Great Mortality,—and the pestilence itself was denominated with a not less fearful propriety, the Black Death.

Tradition had not allowed dumb oblivion to absorb one single detail of all the horrors that the first appearance of the Black Death, in the middle of the fourteenth century, had brought into Europe:—no—all the circumstances of that dread crusade of pestilential fury against human life had been duly preserved, and handed down from generation to generation;—and many, many a fervent prayer had been offered lip—many a princely fortune had been left to the Church to purchase masses—many a well-meaning but mistaken bigot had fled from the world and become an anchorite,—and all with the hope of moving heaven to save Christendom from another such visitation.

It was therefore with additional horror—with the wildest dismay—that Vienna now again recognised the presence of its terrible guest! At first, men were unwilling to believe that so awful an event could indeed recur:—they shrank aghast from even the idea of admitting that the Black Death could be again amongst them!

But as the symptoms,—those symptoms so well known by the traditionary memories of the former aspect and features of the dreadful malady,—developed themselves;—as farther reasoning against the possibility or even the probability of the return of the pestilence became the less feasible;—and as the awful conviction rapidly forced itself on the minds of those who had remained most obstinate in their scepticism,—then commenced scenes of a nature so apalling that no one can convey an idea of one tithe of their intense—their agonizing horror!

The ordinary pursuits of society were indeed paralysed; and all previously-formed plans of happiness, business, trade, occupation, and domestic arrangement, were checked as cruelly and abruptly as if every principle of the human mind were in a moment subverted.

Imagine a family party interrupted in the midst of its Christmas festivities by the sudden death of the master of the house as he sits at the head of his table:—what a fearful change is in a single instant brought into that dwelling!—how rapid is the transition there from joyous smiles to bitter tears—from peals of laughter to heart-breaking moans! Imagine this, we say—and it will give you, reader, some idea of the desolation and misery that abruptly seized upon the inhabitants of Vienna!

For when a pestilence enters the walls of a town, it produces a common wail, as if the entire people were only one vast family, and the town itself on y one vast dwelling-house!

Brightly rose the sun that morning upon the imperial city; and the myriad inmates of those countless habitations awoke in the confidence of health and security. An hour passed—and how changedwas the scene!

Death had entered the mighty capital with a two-edged scythe, and began to mow down the people on his right, and on his left, as if to fulfil the words of the inspired writer who solemnly said, “ALL FLESH IS GRASS.”

And now, as Faust made his way through the streets, he beheld men running wildly along, and women, half-naked and with dishevelled hair, screaming from the casements and the balconies for aid.

The modest beauty which at other times would not have left its chamber without the lace covering upon the neck, now thought not of shame as it stood with bare bosom and naked arms at the door or the window, shrieking for a physician to hasten to a darling child, a dear husband, or a deeply-valued parent!

And shocking were the symptoms of this dire disease!

Inflammatory boils and tumours broke out upon the flesh with astounding rapidity;—the loveliest face was in one short half-hour rendered revolting with a putrid eruption;—and these blains speedily grew darker and more loathsome in hue, until they changed into the hideous black spots that gave to the pestilence its significant name.

Terrible pestilence!

Fearfully significant name!

Those black spots indicated a condition of putrid decomposition;—the tongue grew also black, and swelled so as nearly to suffocate the victim —lolling out of his parched mouth, and between his livid lips, and experiencing a thirst so burning that no beverage, however sharp or acid, could assuage that agonizing sensation:—large gouts of thick black blood were expectorated;—the breath exhaled an odour so nauseating that it was pestilence itself;—and violent pains crowned the infernal torments which the wretched patient thus endured.

Some—but these were a very few—~became stupefied, lost their speech from palsy of the tongue, and sank into a lethargy which soon ended in death. .

But by far the greater portion of the plague-stricken victims writhed on their beds, in horrible consciousness of their frightful state,—a consciousness to which the agony of pain and the heat of scorching thirst allowed no mitigation—no relief! Had they been encircled in the folds of a huge boa constrictor,—his coils twining tightly round their forms—his forked tongue licking their countenances—his pestiferous breath pouring with nauseous heat upon them—and the prospect of a horrible death from such a monstrous reptile before them,—they could not have suffered more!

All, save those few who fell into that lethargy which was so enviable in such a case, prayed that death would put a speedy end to their agonies; and many even laid violent hands upon themselves in the midst of their despair.

Contagious and infectious as it was, the Black Death proceeded not gradually with its ravages: its desolation was wholesale—vast—immense—unsparing throughout the imperial city.

The most sacred ties of kindred were in numerous cases utterly dissolved,—parents abandoning their infected children—children rushing in dismay from the houses where their parents lay writhing in the agonies of the plague—friends deserting dearest friends—husbands seeking a retreat from the pestilential breath of the wives whose beauty was late their pride and their joy—wives madly flying from the husbands whom they had erst pressed to their bosom—lovers turning in disgust, and loathing, and alarm from the mistresses adored an hour before!

The physicians themselves saw that human aid was vain, and that destruction inevitably awaited all who approached the infected.

Terrific mortality!

Appalling scourge of the human race.

And not only to the human race did its malignity extend; for its ravages were spread amongst the brute creation. If a dog touched the garments of a plague-stricken victim who fell dead or dying in the street, it caught the contagion—began to stagger about—and at length sank down and expired in horrid agonies, as if poison had been injected into its veins. The cat that sate on the domestic hearth escaped not the general desolation; and the bird that perched on the win ow-sill of the sick chamber, rose on buoyant wing no more.

From the diseased to the healthy—from the young to the old—from the old to the young—from man to the brute—and from the brute to man, spread the fury of the pestilence, as the flames in the prairies of the New World, extend from the dry grass to the withered tree, and over the heath, thence to the ripe corn, even unto the mighty forest,—streaming onward—onward, with a rage and a velocity which neither Indian nor animal can escape!

And such was the Black Death!

None who were seized with the terrible disease lived more than three days: some died in as many hours;—others fell dead upon the spot, as if struck with apoplexy or blasted by lightning; and, although they had not a spot upon their skin a moment previously, yet immediately afterwards their bodywas coveredwith the black plague boils.

The people of that age were inclined to superstitious belief, and a great majority were plunged in all the ignorance of bigotry:——they were therefore easily accessible to absurd rumours and fanciful opinions. Moreover, the presence of such a fearful visitation prostrated all the mental energie sof even those who escaped the contagion; and the most absurd, but alarming, reports prevailed.

Among other beliefs thus propagated, was one which obtained such general credence, and was of so appalling a nature, that it enhanced to a terrible degree the wild alarms naturally produced by the fury of the pestilence. It was believed, in a word, that the very eyes of the plague stricken were the sources of contagion; and thus the appealing glances which relatives turned towards relatives, an friends towards friends, when seized with the first dread warning of the malady, were deemed to be fiery arrows that would carry the venom of the Black Death to the hearts of all on whom those looks were cast.

But of what avail was flight to the timorous, since their garments were already saturated with the pestiferous atmosphere!


[1] Reynolds is clearly referring here to Miasma: the belief that noxious vapours caused diseases.

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