The Last Shot by August Strindberg

On one of the last days of October in the year 1648 there prevailed much bustle and activity in the streets of the little town Lindau on the Lake of Constance. This Swabian Venice, which lies on Three Island close to the Bavarian coast, had long been besieged by the Swedish Field-marshal Wrangel, who during the last years of the war had been operating in conjunction with the French and had pitched his fortified camp on the hill in the village of Eschach.

The negotiations for peace, which had already lasted four years, had not yet resulted in any cessation of hostilities, only lately Königsmarck had stormed Prague. But this event had accelerated the negotiations in Osnabrück and Münster, and rumours of a coming peace had reached Swabia. Lindau had for many months been suffering all the terrors of a siege. During the last days the bombardment from Eschach had ceased, and the burgomaster, who had returned from a secret visit to Bregenz, had on the afternoon of the above-mentioned day betaken himself to the inn "Zur Krone," for the town hall had been demolished. He hoped to meet there some acquaintance who was not on duty on the fortifications. In the rooms of the inn he had met no one, and feeling rather depressed, he went out on the terrace to cast a look over the town and to see what the Swedes were doing in their camp on the opposite shore.

The Lake of Constance lay there in unruffled calm, and the snowy summit of the lofty Santis was reflected in it; the edge of the Black Forest loomed like an evening cloud, misty-blue in the west, and in the south the Rhine rushed between the Vorarlberg and the Rhetic Alps till its yellow waters flowed into the blue-green depths of the lake. However, the burgomaster had no eye for this kind of beauty, for during the last eight days he had been half starved, and for more than a month he had been suffering and fighting. He only looked down on the road along the shore where good-natured Bavarians mingled with quarrelsome Würtembergers and lively Badenese; he could also see people flocking to the Franciscan church to take the sacrament. Down by the shore he noticed a group of men, who stared out on the lake where some barrels drifted, borne along by the light current; they were busily occupied in drawing these to land with boat-hooks and ropes.

"What have you there, men?" called the burgomaster down from the terrace.

"That is a present from the honest Swiss in St Gall," answered a voice.

"Probably wine or must which has lain in the lake and waited for the west wind in order to float down here from Romanshorn," said another voice.

The burgomaster drew back from the terrace and went down to the dining-room of the inn to sit there and wait for the result of this haul of flotsam and jetsam. The apparently immovable face of the tall Bavarian wore deep lines of trouble, care and vexation. His great fist, which lay on the oaken table, opened and closed as though it were deliberating whether to give up or hold fast something; and his foot, the toes of which seemed to wish to burst the buckskin of his top-boots, stamped the unswept floor so that a cloud of dust rose up like smoke from a tobacco pipe. He struck the ground with his broadsword, and then immediately afterwards drew out of a bag of Cordovan leather, which bore the city arms embroidered in silver, a pair of heavy keys, which he seemed to try in an invisible keyhole, as though he wished to lock a door so that it could never again be opened. Then he put the key-pipe to his mouth and blew a bugle-call which he had had plenty of opportunity of learning during the long siege with its repulsed attacks and unsuccessful sorties.

Suddenly he heard a loud tread and the clanking of armour on the stairs. The burgomaster at once replaced the keys in the bag, fastened it, and swung the strap from which it was suspended round, so that it hung behind him. Then he placed himself in what looked like a defensive attitude, as though he knew who was about to enter through the door.

"Good morning, commandant!" he said to the officer who entered and threw his torn hat with its smoke-soiled plume on a seat.

"Good morning, burgomaster," returned the officer, sitting down at the other side of the table.

There followed a long pause of silence, as though two duellists were loading their pistols in order to shoot each other down. At last the commandant broke the silence by asking abruptly, "What did the Bregenzers say?"

"Not a sack of meal, not a glass of wine, till the town has given up the keys! That was what they said."


"Well?" repeated the burgomaster with a threatening glance.

"You won't give up the keys?"

"No! a thousand times no! a million times no!" He sprang from his chair, crimson in the face.

"Do you know," asked the commandant, "that the corpses are poisoning the city, since the Swedes took the churchyard of Eschach?"

"I know it!"

"Do you know that all the horses and dogs in the town have been killed?"

"I know it. And I know too, that my own watch-dog, my companion for twenty years, since I lost my wife and child, was the first to be sacrificed."

"Do you know that the waters of the lake have risen, that the cellars are full of water, and that no one can take refuge there any more if the bombardment is continued?"

"I know it," answered the burgomaster.

"Do you know that our vines, which are growing outside on the hills on Hourberg, in Schachten and Eichbuhl, are ripe for vintage, and that the Swedes and French are pillaging the vineyards like starlings?"

"I know it. But do you know that peace may be concluded to-day, that it is perhaps already concluded, and that we may save our honour if we wait one more day before capitulating?"

"One day more!" repeated the commandant. "One day more! So we have said for three months, and meantime our children are dying. Perhaps you do not know that the cows give no more milk, since they have been obliged to eat the moss from the roofs, the leaves from the trees—yes, even the dung from the horse-stables, and to lick the empty meal-sacks. It has come to that; and now the children are crying for milk."

"The children! Don't talk to me of children—to me who have seen my only daughter put to shame. Then it was I who begged for help, but in vain! To hell with the children! Why didn't you take them over the water before the Swedes had their punts on the lake?"

"You are a wild animal, burgomaster, and not a man. You would perhaps have liked to have seen them drowned in sacks or eaten, as they did in Bohemia."'

"Yes, we have become wild beasts among wild beasts during the thirty years full of slaughter and fire, robbery and whoremongering. It could be called war as long as the Swedish King lived and led 'soldiers,' but now they have become incendiaries and highway robbers, who destroy for the mere sake of destruction. Huns, Goths and Vandals, who destroy out of sheer rage, because they can produce nothing."

A cry from the street prevented the commandant's answer and drew the two out on the terrace. Crowding closely round the barrels which had been just drawn to land, some coopers were knocking their bottoms out so that the contents ran into the street.

"What are you doing down there?" called the commandant.

"Ah, it is only milk which the greedy Swiss have sent us instead of wine," came the answer from below.

A woman with a child on her arm came up, and when she saw the white stream flowing down the street, she uttered a terrible cry and placed her child on the ground to let it drink. Drawn by her cry, many other mothers came, and the babies seized the cobble-stones with their hands as though they were the softest mother's breast, and licked up the sweet milk like thirsty sucking pigs, while their mothers cursed the coarse men who thought of nothing but themselves.

"Burgomaster!" resumed the commandant, still more excited by the repulsive sight, "let us go on the roof and see what the Swedes are doing; afterwards we will talk of the other matter. As you see, all bonds are broken: one takes what another has not the power to hold; family life threatens to dissolve, and young people live anyhow; every moment one may fear an uprising."

The burgomaster did not listen to him, but ascended the attic stairs till he crept out through a garret window between the beams on to the stair-like offsets of the wall. Up these he clambered to the gable crowned by a flagstaff to which a telescope had been fastened. Underneath him lay the town in its desolation. Not a single whole roof was to be seen; not a tree was left in the old garden—they had all been used for food or fuel. Along the lake shore all the houses had been pulled down and all the gardens destroyed in order to furnish material for the ramparts. Through the streets streamed ragged, hungry, dirty men with wild gestures, all evidently on their way to the inn, "Zur Krone," round which a crowd was beginning to gather.

The burgomaster now looked through the telescope which was directed to the opposite shore. There were ranged row on row of hills, dotted over with white steep-roofed farms, surrounded by pillaged orchards and vineyards. Enclosed in the midst of them lay Eschach, where the Swedish headquarters were. An unwonted bustle was perceptible round the blue and yellow standards, and soldiers seemed to be making some preparations with the cannon which the burgomaster during the long siege had learnt to know well. He had even given the worst beasts in the first siege-battery nicknames. A great scoundrel of red copper, which had smashed the painted windows of the town church, he had named "the red dog." On the left a great mortar, known as "the blunderbuss," was a regular scupper-hole when it began to discharge its contents. "The devil's grand-mother" was the name he gave to a third, made of Swedish iron and said to be the King's own invention. And so on with the rest.

But behind the besiegers' rampart, on a garden terrace, he saw the Swedish Field-mar-shall sitting with his officers and drinking "lake-wine"—their wine which they had cultivated and vintaged and then, stupidly enough, left in the cellars on the opposite shore. As they smoked and drank the officers were studying a drawing, which, however, did not seem to be a map. It reminded the burgomaster of a rumour that Wrangel had wished to transport the Bavarian castle Aschaffenburg to his estates by a lake in Sweden; but as that was impracticable it was said that he had caused designs of the building to be drawn up by an architect, after he had first stripped it of its furniture and other contents.

The sight of the wine and the tobacco aroused for a moment the burgomaster's lower desires, which had been so long suppressed, but his hatred and his grief, which he had cherished for a generation, soon reasserted themselves. For those who had no more food nor drink, who had been deprived of everything dear to them and of peace, nothing remained but honour. By the side of his daughter whom he had himself killed (though he could not adduce this secret as a reason for his obstinacy), he had sworn that he would not give up the keys of the town as long as he was alive.

Suddenly he saw a cloud of smoke rise from "the red dog," heard a cannon ball whir over his head and then land on the road below, where it was greeted with a loud outcry.

"The keys, burgomaster, or we are lost!" cried the commandant, who had mounted the gable stairs.

"To your place, commandant, on the rampart, or you will be hung!" answered the burgomaster.

"Give up the keys, or we will come and fetch them!" roared the major.

"Come then and fetch them!" was the reply.

A number of heads looked out of the garret window, and there was a repeated outcry for the keys.

"Go down from the roof, they are aiming at us!" cried the burgomaster to the people, who began to clamber up the gable steps in order to put their threat into execution.

The next moment the flagstaff was shivered into splinters, struck by a bullet. The burgomaster turned half round and would have fallen, if he had not supported himself on his great sword. He now drew himself up and remained standing on the topmost ridge of the roof, like a stone statue on a cathedral. The people below, however, who had greeted the courageous bearing of their burgomaster with a cheer, were impelled anew by their fears to make an attempt against him, as the keys of the town were in his possession and until they were given up the formal surrender of the town could not take place.

With the help of the malcontents, the commandant ventured on a last attack against the immovable burgomaster. Accordingly he mounted to the top of the dangerous stairs, drew his sword, and demanded that the burgomaster should descend or defend himself where he stood. But it soon was evident that the latter's position was impregnable; and convinced of the impossibility of compelling him to give up the keys, the commandant turned to the people and asked them three times successively whether they accorded him the right to open the town gate and to hoist the white flag.

His question being greeted with an enthusiastic affirmative, he returned the same way as he had come to the ramparts, accompanied by the crowd.

The burgomaster, who had remained behind alone, and perceived that there was no more hope of saving the town, seemed at first to collapse, but he immediately rose up again as though he had formed a resolve. With trembling hand he opened his bag, took the great keys out, and after he had made the sign of the cross, he threw them as far out into the lake as he could. When they had disappeared in the deep waters, he fell again on his knees and with folded hands commenced a long, low prayer. He would like to have made himself deaf just now, but while he called on God and the Holy Virgin he seemed to hear the blows of axes against the city gate, through which the enemy would enter to pillage and rape, to hang and to burn.

But after he had prayed a while he became aware that silence lay over the whole town, and that the cannonade had ceased. Only from the ramparts came a low hum of voices which seemed to be speaking all together; the sound swelled louder and louder till it grew to an uproar and a shout of joy.

He rose from his kneeling attitude and saw a white flag waving from the Swedish headquarters. Then there sounded a peal of trumpets and a roll of drums which were answered in a similar way from the ramparts of Lindau. This was followed by the sound of axe strokes against the city gate. A boat pushed off from the Swedish camp and military music sounded from the opposite shore. And now a cry went through the streets of the town—at first a mere meaningless noise like the sound of waves breaking on the beach; but it came nearer, and presently he could distinguish the final word "concluded," without knowing whether it referred to the capitulation of the town or something else.

But the cry became clearer and clearer as the crowd stormed along the shore of the lake, and waving their hats and caps called up to their valiant burgomaster, "Peace is concluded!"

"Te Deum Laudamus!" was sung in the evening in the Franciscan church, while the inhabitants of the town intoxicated themselves with the contents of the wine barrels which had been brought from the surrounding villages.

When the service was over the burgomaster and the commandant sat with a jug of wine between them in the "Zur Krone'" inn. In one of the roof-beams was embedded the black bullet which had shot down the flagstaff. The burgomaster contemplated it and smiled—smiled for the first time after ten years. But he suddenly started as though he had done something wrong. "The last shot!" he said. "It is long since the first was fired in Prague—a whole generation. Since then Bohemia has lost two million men out of its three, and in the Rheinpfalz only a fiftieth part of the inhabitants remain; Saxony lost one million out of two; Augsburg does not now count more than eighteen of its eighty thousand. In our poor Bavaria two years ago a hundred villages went up in smoke and flame. Hessen laments seventeen towns, seven and forty castles, and four hundred villages. All because of the Augsburg Confession! For the sake of the Augsburg Confession Germany has been laid waste, torn to pieces, cut off from all the seas, left without air, choked, and has miserably perished. Finis Germaniae."

"I don't think it was the Augsburg Confession which did it," objected the commandant. "See the Frenchmen celebrating their Masses like good Catholics in the Swedish camp. No, it was something else."

"Well, it may perhaps have been something else," answered the burgomaster. He emptied his glass and went home to sleep quietly—for the first time after thirty years—thirty terrible years.