From Czech: Midnight Mass, by Jan Neruda

(My translation of the short story Svatováclavská mše by Jan Neruda, which was published in Povídky malostranské in 1877)

Portrait by Jan Vilímek

I was sitting at the bottom of the steps leading up to the choir lofts and could hardly breathe. Through the iron grill of the door, which stood ajar, I had a good view of the nave – as far as the silver tomb of St Jan on the right and the sacristy on the left. Benediction had finished a long time ago and St Vít’s cathedral was empty except for two people: my mother, who was kneeling at the tomb, lost in prayer; and the old sacristan, who was making his last round before locking up. He walked past me, only a few paces away, and turned to the exit under the royal oratory, where I could hear him turning the key in the door and then trying the handle to make sure it was locked. Then he carried on and, as he did so, my mother got to her feet, made the sign of the cross and walked off beside him, and both of them were soon hidden from view by the tomb. For a few moments I could only hear the echo of their footsteps and snatches of conversation before they reappeared over by the sacristy. I heard him shut the door and, once again, there was the sound of locking and making sure with the handle. Then they continued to the exit on the right. There were two metalic clicks, after which I was alone in the cathedral and unable to get out. A wave of heat seemed to sweep across my back – a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.

I jumped up, pulled the door to, took my handkerchief out of my pocket and tied it so tightly around the handle that no-one could possibly open it. Then I quickly climbed the stairs to the lower choir loft, where I sat down on a little step, pressing myself against the wall as I did so. The thing was, I was utterly convinced the main doors would soon reopen and the dogs that guarded the cathedral at night would come bounding in. And this was despite the fact that we altar servers had never actually seen the cathedral dogs, nor heard them barking, but we were convinced there were three of them, each one large, mottled and positively evil, just like King Václav’s hound in the painting behind the high altar. And they never barked – a sure sign that a dog is mad as hell.

I also knew that big dogs could turn door handles, which was why I made the door downstairs doubly secure with my handkerchief. I reckoned I’d be safe from them up in the choir loft, so that, after the sacristan had taken them away in the morning, I’d be able to go down again without a care in the world.

You’ll already have guessed I was intent on spending the night in St Vít’s cathedral. Secretly, of course. But there was a very good reason for it: us lads knew for sure that every night, in the chapel named after him, St Václav said holy mass. To be honest, I’d passed this information on to the other boys myself, but it came from an indisputable source: Havel, the sacristan. We used to call him “Havel the Turkey” because of his extraordinarily long nose. Anyway, he told my parents about it at home once and, as soon as he’d finished talking, he glanced at me in a funny way and I instantly realised that he hadn’t meant me to know about it. So I just told my two best friends and we agreed that we’d have a look at that midnight mass – we were great admirers of St Václav. As I’d been the first one to find out about it, I had to have priority and that’s why, out of the three of us, it was me who was sitting in the lower choir loft that night, locked in and with the whole wide world locked out.

I knew my parents wouldn’t be worrying about me at home. I’d managed, with the mendacity that comes wonderfully naturally to many a clever nine-year-old boy, to convince my mother that my aunt in the Old Town had said she’d like me to call over that evening. And it went without saying that I’d spend the night there and that, the next morning, I’d go to carry out my altar-server duties at the first mass of the day in the cathedral before carrying on home. If, later on, I let slip that I’d been in the cathedral all night, what of it? I’d be able to tell everyone about St Václav saying mass! I had visions of being almost as distinguished a person as old Mrs Vimer, the cabinet-maker’s mother, who – one day during the cholera epidemic – had seen the statue of the Virgin Mary from the Capuchin Friary, dressed in her golden robe and walking around Loretán Square sprinkling the houses with holy water. Everyone had been relieved that the plague was about to end and it wasn’t until it went on to strike those houses particularly hard that they realised what the miracle had really meant, namely that the Virgin Mary had sprinkled the doors of the houses whose inhabitants were about to join her in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I suppose everyone must have found themselves – if only for a moment – all alone in an empty cathedral, so you’ll know how those huge, silent spaces can play on your nerves. And of course, in the case of a child whose imagination is already feverish in the expectation of seeing the most extraordinary things, the effect is so much greater. I waited for a moment. The bell rang for a quarter past and, in due course, for half past, the noise slowly disappearing in the cathedral as if in an underground lake. But there was no noise whatsoever at the main door. Had they thought it unnecessary to guard the cathedral tonight? Or did they wait until it was dark?

I got up from the step and slowly straightened myself. The last of the day could faintly be seen through the nearest large window. It was late November, after the feast of St Catherine, and the days were short. I could hear very few sounds from outside, but the ones I did hear were loud. The evenings have a melancholy quiet in that vicinity. Occasionally the sound of individual steps on the cobbles outside reached me. Once, I heard the loud, uncouth voices of two men passing by, and then the rumbling wheels of a wagon that must have been passing through the castle entrance. The sound became louder, so the wagon must have come out on to the square. But the rumbling kept getting louder and nearer, there was the clatter of horses’ hooves, the rattle of heavy chains, the juddering of large wheels – evidently a large army wagon was making its way to St Jiři’s Barracks. It was so loud that I could hear the nearby window rattling and, somewhere in the upper choir loft, the sparrows twittered nervously. I breathed a sigh of relief; it was good to know that, not far away, there were harmless living creatures.

But I can’t say that, alone as I was in the cathedral, I really felt lonely or afraid. So why was that? I was, of course, well aware of the oddity of what I was doing, but I didn’t have any regrets. No sense of sin weighed on my conscience; on the contrary, I felt utterly elated. My religious enthusiasm had, so to speak, turned me into a strange, noble being. Never before – and, indeed, never afterwards – did I feel so perfect and so thoroughly enviable. Perhaps I’d have gone so far as to bow to myself, if a child were as capable as adults of stupid self-love. At another time and place I might well have been afraid of ghosts, but how could ghosts have any power here in the cathedral?

And the spirits of the saints who were buried there? At that moment I was interested only in St Václav and he’d surely be genuinely delighted to see how brave I’d been just to see him, in all his glory, worshipping God. If he’d let me, how willingly would I serve at mass for him, how carefully carry the mass book, with its metal-embellished cover, from side to side, and ring the little bell not even once more than strictly necessary! And during the recessional I’d sing so high and so beautifully as to bring tears to St Václav’s eyes and, back in the sacristy, he’d lay both his hands on my head and say, “Good boy!”

I was woken from my reverie by the noise of the bell striking five o’clock in the afternoon. I took my reading book out of the school bag that was slung over my shoulder, opened it up on the balustrade and began to read. My young eyes were still able to do so, despite the increasing gloom inside the cathedral. Every sound – even the smallest – from outside made me stop and listen, until there was dead silence again. But now I could hear light steps approaching. They stopped right beneath the window and I was immediately sure it was my two friends. Our secret whistle sounded outside. I was so happy to know that my friends were still thinking of me; they’d probably had to sneak out from home and might get a beating when they returned, the poor things. Nevertheless, I flushed with pride at the thought of how they must have admired me and have wished to be in my place, if only for an hour – so much so that they wouldn’t be able to sleep all night! And how willingly would I have let them join me for that one hour!

Now I could hear hooting, like an owl. Fricek, the cobbler’s son! I’d recognise his voice anywhere. We were such good friends, and nothing had gone right for Fricek that day, right from the start, when he’d spilled some water on to the parish priest’s shoes during the first mass. (Fricek was always gazing round about him in the cathedral instead of looking at the priest.) And in the afternoon the teacher had caught him kissing Anynka, the headmaster’s little daughter, and giving her a note. All three of us were in love with her, to tell you the truth, and she was in love with all three of us. And now Kubíček, good old Kubíček, was hooting too! Oh, how gladly I’d have hooted in reply! Or at least whistled, or shouted something. But I was in a holy place.

The boys were talking in raised voices now, so that I could hear them, and sometimes they shouted. But I could only make out the odd few words: “Are you there?”, “Yoohoo! Are you there?”, “Aren’t you scared?” Yes, I am! No, I’m not! Whenever someone walked past they scurried off, but then they immediately came back. It was almost as if, through the wall, I could see their every movement, and I couldn’t help grinning. And now something clattered against the window – I almost jumped out of my skin! It was evidently a pebble they’d thrown. And then another! But immediately I heard a gruff voice from nearby in the square; a man was shouting at my friends and they ran away. And didn’t return. Well, not yet… No, they weren’t coming back.

And that’s when I started feeling all alone. I put the book back in my bag, went over to the other balustrade and looked down into the cathedral. It seemed to me that everything looked more melancholy now than it had before. And that was regardless of the darkness: I could still make out individual objects clearly, and I would have made them out if it had been even darker – I knew them so well. But it was as if the columns, the altars and everything had been swathed in the same lenten purple. I leant over the balustrade. Over there on the right, the eternal light, held by the famous stone figure of a miner, projecting from the column, was glowing beneath the royal oratory. It was so little and so steady, that flame, like the quietist little star in the heavens. I saw the floor below that light, divided into black and white lozenges; a dull gleam extended to the back of the pew opposite and even to the cloak of some wooden, ornate saint on the nearest altar. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what he looked like in daylight. And then I glanced at the stone miner again. His head was lit from below and the baroque forms of his clothes looked like a pile of clumsily executed dirty red balls; in daylight we found his bulging eyes scary, but now I couldn’t see them. A little further on, the tomb of St Václav was little more than a faint smudge in the dark.

Yet again I glanced at the miner, and this time it seemed to me he was deliberately holding his head back as if he were chuckling in a knowing sort of way, and as if the redness in his clothes was simply the result of that knowing laughter. Perhaps he was peering from the side of his eyes and quietly laughing at me. And that’s when fear took hold of me. I closed my eyes and began to pray, after which I felt more relaxed; I stood up and looked fearlessly at the miner. The little lamp was still glowing calmly. The bell in the tower entoned seven o’clock.

But now I had another unpleasant sensation: I started shivering with cold. Outside, a dry frost had taken hold and here, inside the cathedral, it was cold as well; and, although I had plenty of clothes on, it wasn’t enough to stop the cold getting into me. Not only that, but I suddenly started feeling hungry. It was already after supper time and I’d completely forgotten to bring some food with me. But I soon decided to overcome my hunger heroically, because fasting would be a fitting preparation for the approaching midnight bliss. Nevertheless, the cold that was stealing into my body wasn’t something that could be warded off by willpower alone; I needed to move about in order to warm up a bit. So I walked around the choir loft for a while and then I went over to the organ, behind which was the staircase leading up to the main choir loft. Thoroughly familiar with every nook and cranny, I began climbing. The first step creaked, which gave me a fright, but I carrried on up, more slowly and carefully, as we used to do on feastdays, so that the bellows-treader wouldn’t hear us and shoo us back down before we could slip in somewhere behind the musicians.

I was now on the upper choir loft and kept on, carefully, step by step, until I got to the front. This was the first time I’d ever stood there on my own, unobserved; previously we’d only ever gone there together, and always with a certain awe-struck timidity. Up there, there are steep banks of seats on each side of the organ, like the benches in an old-fashioned circus. I sat down on the lowest step, right beside the kettledrum.

Who could stop me now from playing on the drums, those drums that had such a compelling attraction for us? I touched the surface of the kettledrum, as lightly as if I were just brushing it with a feather; then I touched it a little more firmly, which elicited a faint sound, but I touched it no more – I felt as if I’d invoked some hidden power that would better remain hidden.

In front of me there were rows of dark psalters on stands and on the high balustrade. I could have touched them now too, could have tried to see if I could lift one. During the day I probably wouldn’t have resisted the temptation. Those huge psalters always seemed so mysterious to us. The binding on their covers was brass; the covers themselves were worn and cracked; the corners of the parchment pages, which were turned over with the help of little wooden spindles, were smudged with use; and the text had magnificent gilt and coloured initial letters, the rest being in black, old-fashioned script, with tall staves of black and red notes, so big that we could make them out from the very top step. One of those psalters must have been so heavy, because the tall, skinny tenor from the castle couldn’t even move them – we lads used to regard him with contempt – and when one of them had to be moved, the fat, red-faced bass-singer always had to do it, and even he did it puffing and panting. We loved that bass; his deep voice seemed to pass straight through us, like a mighty wave of music, so we always stayed as close to him as we could during processions. He used to stand right in front of me here at sung mass, singing from the same score with two other bases, but their voices weren’t so strong. A bit further on the left there were two tenors. We didn’t think much of tenors in general, but we did have some respect for the smaller of those two. He also played the kettledrum and, when he took up the drumsticks and when Rojko, the merchant, put his lips to the trombone, we knew the great moment had come. Over on the left there were the boy singers, with the all-powerful choirmaster standing in their midst. I can hear his final words before mass starts, the rustle of the music scores being handed out, the pealing of the bells outside; and now the little sacristy bell rings, the organ launches into the prelude, with such deep, long tones that the whole cathedral seems to shake, the choirmaster peers at the main altar before swishing his raised baton, and the beautiful, majestic music of the Kyrie wafts out and up to the vaulted roof.

I heard the singers, the music, the whole mass. All of it passed through my dreaming mind, right up to the “Dona nobis pacem.” There’s never been, nor could there ever be, such a beautiful mass as I seemed to witness. The bass was richer than ever, the sound of the drums and the trombone was like a current of pure joy. I don’t know how long that imagined mass lasted; it even seemed to me, in the midst of that beautiful music, that I could hear the bells striking the hours up in the tower. But suddently a chill went through me, which made me get to my feet.

All along the top of the nave ceiling there seemed to be a slight silver glow. The light of a starry night was seeping through all the windows; perhapts the moon was looking in too. I climbed on to the step in front of the balustrade and looked down into the cathedral. I was breathing deeply and my lungs filled with that strange air, made up of incense and sacred song, that you find in every cathedral. The marble of the large mausoleum glowed white below me, the second eternal light gleamed, opposite me, at the high altar, and a delicate roseate glow seemed to flicker occasionally over the golden sanctuary walls. I was still in a state of religious ecstasy and couldn’t wait to find out what St Václav’s mass would be like. You wouldn’t be able to hear any bells outside because, of course, everyone would hear them and that would be the end of the myth and the mystery. But perhaps the little sacristy bell will ring clearly, the organ will start up and, suddenly, magically lit by a faint light, a procession will move past the high altar and through the right-hand aisle to the Chapel of St Václav. (The procession would probably be in the same order as it was after benediction on Sunday afternoons; I couldn’t imagine it otherwise.)

At the front there would be shiny metal lanterns on red poles, most likely carrried by angels – who else? Then – then there would have to be singers, those brightly coloured, stone singers whose top halves you can see way up in the triforium: the Czech Kings, the Queens of the Luxembourg Family, archbishops, canons, the builders of the cathedral. The present-day canons won’t be among them of course; they’re not worthy of it, particularly not that Canon Pešina! He’d really hurt my pride because, once, when I was carrying one of those heavy, metal lanterns a little crooked at benediction, he clipped me round the ear; and, another time, again at benediction, when the bell-ringer let me go up the bell-tower to ring, for the first time on my own, the bell they call Joseph, and when, afterwards, I came down, full of the most poetic elation, I found Canon Pešina at the bottom, saying to the bell-ringer: “Which donkey did that? The city’s not ablaze!”

In my mind I saw all those old gentlemen, with their stone eyes, processing along but, strangely, I couldn’t manage to conjure up their bottom halves; it was just their top halves but, nevertheless, they moved along as if they were walking. And then, I suppose, the archbishops who lie at the back, in the Kinský Chapel, and after them the silver angels of St Jan, and after them, with a crucifix in his hand, the silver St Jan himself and, following him, the bones of St Zikmund, just a few bones on a red cushion, but the cushion seemed like it was walking as well. Then all kinds of knights in armour, followed by the kings and earls from all the tombs in the cathedral, some of them dressed magnificently in flowing red robes, others, including Jiří z Poděbrad, wearing white marble. And then, carrying a chalice covered by a silver pall, St Václav himself. Tall, youthful and strong. On his head, instead of a biretta, a simple metal helmet, but the chain mail protecting his body is covered by a shiny white chasuble. His chestnut hair tumbles down in a mass of curls and his face glows with dignity, kindness and calm. And here it was strange that, although I could quite clearly imagine the shape of his face – his big, blue eyes, ruddy cheeks and soft, wavy beard –, it was as if his face wasn’t made of flesh and blood but of steadily glowing light.

While I was imagining the forthcoming procession, my eyes were closed. The silence, my tiredness and my inflamed imagination did their work – sleep crept up on me and my knees sank to the ground. But I straightened myself up again and looked around the cathedral. It was deadly quiet, as it had been earlier, but now that deadly quiet started to have a very different effect on me: weary and stiff with cold, I was suddenly invaded by a feeling of dread, an uncertain dread, which made it all the worse. I didn’t know what I was afraid of, but I certainly was afraid and my weak, childish mind could find nothing to reassure it.

I crumpled into a heap on the step and started crying uncontrollably. Tears streamed down my face and I gasped for breath. I started hiccupping loudly and tried in vain to suppress it. Sometimes the hiccups were so loud that they echoed eerily through the silent cathedral, and that strange sound made me even more scared. If only I wasn’t so all alone in that enormous cathedral! If only, at least, I wasn’t locked up inside it!

Once more I let out a groan, probably even louder than before, and suddenly – as if in answer – I heard a bird peeping above me. So I wasn’t alone: the sparrows had been keeping me company through the night! I knew very well where they lived: between the beams right above that bank of seats! That was their sanctuary in the cathedral, a place where they were safe even from any of our boyish pranks. That’s to say, we could have reached up there between the beams, but we never did.

And that’s what I decided to do. As quietly as I could, I climbed up to the top step and, taking a rapid breath, I reached up between the beams with both hands and – and already I had a sparrow in my grasp. The startled bird started to peep loudly and pecked at my thumb, but I didn’t let go of it. I could feel, under my fingers, how its little, warm heart was beating with life – and that made me lose all my fear. I didn’t feel lonely any more and the consciousness of being so much stronger than that bird immediately filled me with fresh courage.

If I hold on to the sparrow, I told myself, I won’t be afraid and I won’t fall asleep. And, in any case, it must be nearly midnight now. I’ll be careful not to miss the next time the bell tolls the hour. And I’ll lie myself down here, over these two steps, I’ll hold the sparrow to my chest with one hand and I’ll keep my eyes on the window of St Václav’s chapel, so that I’ll immediately see when it lights up for the miraculous mass.

So I arranged myself accordingly and looked over at the window. There was a hazy darkness in the cathedral. I don’t know how long I was looking at the window, but gradually that dark haze became lighter, and then bluer, and then clearer, and then brighter, until it seemed to me as if I were looking at the bluest of blue skies. And then the bell started tolling the hour, and one blow followed another for a long, long time – for an eternity.

I was woken up by a terrible pain, a pain caused by intense cold. My whole body seemed battered and broken. My eyes seemed to be gazing into a great, blazing oven and my ears seemed to be ringing with an infernal peeping and chirping.

Suddenly I remembered: I was lying across those two steps, holding my hand to my chest – but my hand was open and empty. Opposite me, the window of the St Václav Chapel was aglow with lights from inside the cathedral. The mass bell rang and the familiar, solemn sounds of the singing at morning mass floated up to me.

Could it be St Václav’s mass? Warily I got up and descended quietly to the lower choir loft, where I’d be able to see through the window into the chapel. When I got there I looked fearfully down.

The parish priest was saying mass at the altar. One of the sacristans was serving and was just ringing the bell for the consecration.

In even greater fear I immediately looked at that well-known place in the pews. My mother was kneeling there, beating her breast. And beside her was – my aunt from the Old Town.

And now my mother raised her head and I saw how the tears were rolling down her cheeks.

Realising what had happened, I felt ashamed and desperately unhappy. I suddenly got an awful headache and everything seemed to be spinning. And I felt so sad for my mother, who must have been weeping over her missing son. I’d caused her such grief. My chest ached and I could hardly breathe. I wanted to rush down to my mother, but my legs folded under me, my head slid down by the wall and I ended up lying on the floor. It was probably fortunate that I started crying again because, although the tears seemed to burn at first, they eventually calmed me.

It was still dark and a cold drizzle was falling when the congregation started leaving after morning mass. The humbled and sorely disappointed religious hero was standing in front of the cathedral doors, not noticed by anyone, and not noticing anyone himself. Not until his old mother, with his aunt beside her, finally came out and felt, all of a sudden, pressed fiercely on her quivering hand, a wild, wet kiss.

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