The Unknown Guest

Author: Maurice Maeterlinck


I assure you that the first shock is rather disturbing, however much one expected it. I am quite aware that, when one describes these things, one is taken for a dupe too readily dazzled by the doubtless childish illusion of an ingeniously contrived scene. But what contrivances, what illusions have we here? Do they lie in the spoken word? Why, to admit that the horse understands and translates his master’s words is just to accept the most extraordinary part of the phenomenon! Is it a case of surreptitious touches or conventional signs? However simple-minded one may be, one would nevertheless notice them more easily than a horse, even a horse of genius. Krall never lays a hand on the animal; he moves all round the little table, which contains no appliances of any sort; for the most part, he stands behind the horse which is unable to see him, or comes and sits beside his guest on the innocuous corn-bin, busying himself, while lecturing his pupil, in writing up the minutes of the lesson. He also welcomes with the most serene readiness any restrictions or tests which you propose. I assure you that the thing itself is much simple, and clearer than the suspicions of the arm-chair critics and that the most distrustful mind world not entertain the faintest idea of fraud in the frank, wholesome atmosphere of the old stable.

"But," some one might have said, "Krall, who knew that you were coming to Elberfeld, had of course thoroughly rehearsed his little exercise in spelling, which apparently is only an exercise in memory."

For conscience’ sake, though I did not look upon the objection as serious, I submitted it to Krall, who at once said: "Try it for yourself. Dictate to the horse any German word of two or three syllables, emphasizing it strongly. I’ll go out of the stable and leave you alone with him."

Behold Muhamed and me by ourselves. I confess that I am a little frightened. I have many a time felt less uncomfortable in the presence of the great ones or the kings of the earth. Whom am I dealing with exactly? However, I summon my courage and speak aloud the first word that occurs to me, the name of the hotel at which I am staying: Weidenhof. At first, Muhamed, who seems a little puzzled by his master’s absence, appears not to hear me and does not even deign to notice that I am there. But I repeat eagerly, in varying tones of voice, by turns insinuating, threatening, beseeching and commanding:

"Weidenhof! Weidenhof! Weidenhof!"

At last, my mysterious companion suddenly makes up his mind to lend me his ears and straightway blithely raps out the following letters, which I write down on the black-board as they come:


It is a magnificent specimen of equine spelling! Triumphant and bewildered, I call in friend Krall, who, accustomed as he is to the prodigy, thinks it quite natural, but knits his brows:

"What’s this, Muhamed? You’ve made a mistake again. It’s an F you want at the end of the word, not a Z. Just correct it at once, please."

And the docile Muhamed, recognizing his blunder, gives the three blows with his right hoof, followed by the four blows with his left, which represent the most unexceptionable F that one could ask for.

Observe, by the way, the logic of his phonetic writing: contrary to his habit, he strikes the mute E after the W, because it is indispensable; but, finding it included in the D, he considers it superfluous and suppresses it with a high hand.

You rub your eyes, question yourself, ask yourself in the presence of what humanized phenomenon, of what unknown force, of what new creature you stand. Was all this what they hid in their eyes, those silent brothers of ours? You blush at arm’s long injustice. You look around you for some sort of trace, obvious or subtle, of the mystery. You feel yourself attacked in your innermost citadel, where you held yourself most certain and most impregnable. You have felt a breath from the abyss upon your face. You would not be more astonished if you suddenly heard the voice of the dead. But the most astonishing thing is that you are not astonished for long. We all, unknown to ourselves, live in the expectation of the extraordinary; and, when it comes, it moves us much less than did the expectation. It is as though a sort of higher instinct, which knows everything and is not ignorant of the miracles that hang over our heads, were reassuring us in advance and helping us to make an easy entrance into the regions of the supernatural. There is nothing to which we grow accustomed more readily than to the marvellous; and it is only afterwards, upon reflection, that our intelligence, which knows hardly anything, appreciates the magnitude of certain phenomena.


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Chicago: Maurice Maeterlinck, "10," The Unknown Guest, trans. Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859 in The Unknown Guest (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022,

MLA: Maeterlinck, Maurice. "10." The Unknown Guest, translted by Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859, in The Unknown Guest, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: Maeterlinck, M, '10' in The Unknown Guest, trans. . cited in 1831, The Unknown Guest, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from