The Plague

Golden Mask

Marcel Schwob (1867−1905) was a French symbolist author, remembered for his numerous and varied short stories, literary monographs, newspaper chronicles of fin-de-siècle Paris, and linguistic tracts on medieval slang, much of which sprang from his fabled devotion to archival research. While his work has fallen into relative obscurity, it was hailed in his day by writers as various as Colette, Remy de Gourmont, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the personal influence of his writing has been noted and explored by a number of modern luminaries, including Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Fleur Jaeggy. Wakefield Press recently published his 1895 work, The Book of Monelle, in a new translation by Kit Schulter.

As a translator, Kit Schluter has brought into English works by Pierre Alferi, Amandine André, Ghérasim Luca, Jaime Saenz, Alice Sant’Anna, and Marcel Schwob, among others. Recent personal writing of his can be found in Boston Review, BOMB, and the forthcoming Incident Codex from Inpatient Press. The two stories presented here figure into his translation of Marcel Schwob’s 1892 collection, The King in the Golden Mask, forthcoming from Wakefield Press.

Never before translated in its entirety, The King in the Golden Mask (French edition pictured above) was Marcel Schwob’s second book of fiction, and offers a full display of his mastery of the short story and the depth of his erudition: twenty-one tales of murder and suicide, royal leprosy and medieval witchcraft, with eunuchs, Libyan embalming women, and Milesian virgins, all set in a variety of historical periods, from the Ice Age to the years of the Plague.

Marcel Schwob

The author in his library, c. 1900.


To Auguste Bréal


CCCI e mille l’an corant

Nella città di Trento Rè Rupert

Volle lo scudo mio esser copert

De l’arme suo Lion d’oro rampant



I, Bonacorso de Neri de Pitti, son of Bonacorso, gonfaloniere of justice in the commune of Florence, of which the coat of arms was dressed, in the year fourteen-hundred-and-one, by an order of King Rupert, in the city of Trento, with the golden rampant lion, I want to recount for my ennobled descendents what happened to me when I began to roam the land in search of adventure.

In the year MCCCLXXIV, being a young man without money, I ran from Florence on the great highways, with Matteo for companion. For the plague was devastating the city. The sickness was swift, and attacked in the streets. Your eyes would burn and grow red, your throat grew sore; your stomach distended. Then little pockets of irritating water covered your mouth and your tongue. Thirst possessed you. A dry cough would shake the sick for hours. Then your limbs would stiffen at the joints, your skin piebald with swollen red pocks that some have dubbed bubons. And the faces of the dead ended up swollen and white, with bloody contusions and mouths open like horns. The public fountains, almost dried up from the heat, were surrounded by men, hunched over and thin, trying to dunk their heads. Many dove right in, and those ones were pulled out by chain hooks, black with scum and with skulls cracked. The browning corpses littered the middle of the lanes down which stream, in season, the torrents of rain; the smell was intolerable, and the fear was terrible.

But Matteo loved to roll the dice, and we had quite a time right at the exit of the city, and we drank, at the first inn, some mixed wine for our health in mortality. There were merchants there from Genoa and Pavia; and we challenged them with dice cup in hand, and Matteo won twelve ducats. As for me, I invited them to a game of tables, and had the good fortune of walking away with a gain of twenty gold florins, and with these ducats we purchased mules and a load of wool, and Matteo, who had decided to go to Prussia, picked up a provision of saffron.

We roamed the paths from Padua to Verona, we came back to Verona to furnish ourselves more amply with wool, and we traveled to Venice. From there, passing the sea, we went into Sclavonia, and visited the good cities up to the Croatian border. In Buda, I fell sick with fever, and Matteo left me alone at the inn, with twelve ducats, returning to Florence, where certain business was calling him, and where I was supposed to join him again. I lay in a dry and dusty room, on a bag of straw, with no doctor, but a door that opened directly to the drinking room. On the night of Saint Martin, there came a company of fifers and flautists, with some fifteen or sixteen Venetian and Teuton soldiers. After draining many a flask, crushing the pewter mugs and breaking the jugs against the wall, they began to dance to the sound of the fife. They peeked their ugly red mugs through the door, and seeing me laid out on my back, started to pull me into the other room, crying, “You drink, or you sink!” then made a fool of me, and finished by dumping me in the straw in the bag, which they stitched shut around my neck.

I sweated copiously, and this no doubt lowered my temperature, whereas my anger soared. They had tangled up my arms and taken away my basilar, otherwise I would have made a break for it, thorny with straw, amid the soldiers. But I carried on my belt, under my stockings, a short and sheathed blade; I succeeded in slipping my hand to it, and with its help, I broke open the fabric of the sack.

Perhaps the fever was still causing my brain to swell; but the memory of the plague we had left behind in Florence, and which had since spread to Sclavonia, mixed in my mind with a sort of image I had formed of the face of Sulla, dictator of the Latins, of whom the great Cicero speaks. He resembled, the Athenians said, a blackberry powdered with flour. I decided to terrify the Venetian and Teuton gendarmes; and when I found myself in the nook where the innkeeper locked up his provisions and the conserved fruits, I quickly slashed a bag full of cornflour. I rubbed my face with this dust; and once I had taken on a complexion neither yellow nor white, I gave my arm a good scratch with my blade, from which I drew enough blood to unevenly blotch the coating. Then I got back into the sack, and I waited for the drunken reprobates. They came in, laughing and staggering: hardly had they seen my white and bloody face before they started to crash into each other, crying, “The plague! The plague!”

I hadn’t even picked up my weapons, before the inn had emptied out. Feeling recovered, from the sweat these goons had forced out of me, I set out on the road for Florence, to join back up with Matteo.

I found my companion Matteo wandering through the Florentine countryside, and quite under the weather. He hadn’t dared go into the city because of the plague that continued to rage there. We turned back and made our way, on a quest for wealth, toward the states of Pope Gregory. Heading up toward Avignon, we ran into bands of armed men, carrying lances, pikes, and voulges. For the citizens of Bologna had just risen up against the pope, by request of those of Florence (which we didn’t know). We played joyous games of this and that sort with the people there, as many games of tables as of dice, so well that we won upwards of three-hundred ducats and four-score gold florins.

The city of Bologna was almost entirely devoid of people, and we were received in the bath houses with cries of jubilation. The chambers there are not covered with straw as in many Lombard cities; the filthy beds are not lacking there, although the straps are for the most part broken. Matteo ran into a Florentine girl he knew, Monna Giovanna; as for me, who didn’t think of asking the name of my girl, I was happy with her.

We drank in abundance there; of chewy wine from the region and of bitter beer, and we ate jams and tartlets. Matteo, whom I had told of my adventure, feigning to step out, went down into the kitchens, and came back disguised as a plague victim. The sauna girls ran away on all sides, letting out high pitched squeals, then reassured themselves, and came to touch, still afraid, Matteo’s face. Monna Giovanna did not want to come back with him, and stayed, trembling in a corner, claiming his forehead was warm with fever. Nevertheless, Matteo, drunk, lay his head down among the pots, on the table, which his snores caused to shake, and he looked like one of those colorful wooden faces street performers use on the sidewalk stage.

At last we left Bologna, and after diverse adventures, we came near Avignon, where we learned that the pope was having all the Florentines put in prison, and burning them, them and their books, to avenge their rebellion. But we were alerted too late; for the sergeants of the pope’s marshals surprised us in the night, and threw us in the prison of Avignon.

Before our interrogation, we were examined by a judge and provisionally put in the oubliette, until information, with dry bread and water, as is customary in ecclesiastical justice. I nevertheless succeeded in hiding under my robe our burlap sack, which contained a bit of polenta and some olives.

The floor of the dungeon was swampy; and we had no air, save through a grilled window that opened out to the level of the courtyard’s ground. Our feet had been passed through the holes of very heavy wooden yokes, our hands bound with fairly loose chains, in such a way that our bodies touched from shoulder to knee. The bailiff of the dungeon did us the kindness of telling us that we were under suspicion of poison, for the pope had found out through certain ambassadors that the gonfalonieres of the commune of Florence were entertaining a plot for his death.

We were thus in the blackness of the prison, hearing no noise, not knowing the hour of day or night, in great danger of being burned alive. I remembered then our strategy; and the idea came to us that the papal justice, by fear of our illness, would have us thrown outside. I waited painfully with my polenta, and it was agreed that Matteo would smear his face with it and would blotch his face with blood, while I would cry out to draw in the lackeys. Matteo made up his mask, and the raspy howls began, as if his throat were constricted. I invoked Our Lady, rattling my chains. But the dungeon was deep, the door thick, and it was night. For several hours we pleaded uselessly. I stopped my cries: Matteo, however, continued to moan. I nudged him with my elbow, that he might rest until the morning: his moans only grew louder. I touched him in the darkness: my hands felt nothing but his belly, which seemed swollen to me like a goatskin. And as he cried in a hoarse voice, “A drink! A drink!” until I seemed to be hearing the desperate calls of an unleashed dog pack, the pale disc of the rising daylight fell in from the little window. And then a cold sweat streamed down my limbs; for, under his powdery mask, under the blotches of dried blood, I saw that he was deathly pale, and I recognized the white scabs and the red oozing of the plague of Florence.