Minka by Paul Heyse
It was a few years after the French war. The fall review had
incidentally brought together again a number of young officers who had
earned their iron crosses in the array of the Loire, and they had
invited good comrades from other regiments to join them and celebrate
the reunion from an inexhaustible bowl. Midnight was past. The talk,
which for some time had concerned personal recollections and
experiences, had taken a thoughtful turn and was becoming profound. It
was impossible to realize how many were absent without touching on the
everlasting riddle of human life. Besides, the horrible death of a
popular young hero, who had fallen into the hands of the Franc-tireurs,
and been killed in the most revolting manner, and the consequent
destruction of a treasure of brilliant gifts and talents, hopes and
promises--had brought again to the front the old problem, whether
universal destiny and the fate of the individual will be according to
our idea of justice; or whether the individual's weal or woe will be
quietly subordinated to the vast, mysterious design of the universe.
All the well-known reasons for and against a providence ruling morally
and judging righteously, as human beings conceive it, were discussed
again and again; and at length the oldest and most distinguished
of the young soldiers formulated, from the animated argument, this
result:--that even the most enthusiastic optimist, in face of the
crying horrors to which poor humanity is exposed, cannot prove the
existence of a compensating justice on earth; indeed, can only save his
belief in a righteous God by hoping for a world to come.
"But will donkeys go to heaven, too?" suddenly asked a calm, rich voice
from a quiet corner.
For a moment all were silent. Then followed an outburst of gay
laughter, agreeably enlivening to the majority, who were tired of the
"Hear! hear!" cried some.
"One will not be able to understand his own speech at doomsday if all
the resurrected donkeys bray to one another," said a lively young
captain. "Although, Eugene, if the sainted Antonius's pig is in
"And so many pious sheep!" another broke in.
"You forget that the question is long since decided," said a third;
"one has only to read Voltaire's 'Pucelle' in so many cantos!"
"Were you merely joking, Eugene?" then asked the senior president, who
had not joined in the laugh, "or was the question seriously meant,
because it is certainly not yet decided whether or no an immortal soul
lives in animals also?"
The person thus addressed was a young man about thirty years of age,
the only one at the banquet who wore civilian's dress. A severe wound
had forced him to give up a military career. Since then he had lived on
his small estate, more occupied with the study of military science than
with the tilling of his fields. He had come to the city on the occasion
of the review in order to see his old friends.
"The question," he now said very earnestly, "is really not my own, but
is a quotation, whose brusque simplicity embarrassed me myself not long
ago. A strange little story, certainly not a cheerful one, depends on
it. But since we have again soared into speculations which are beyond
jesting, it may perhaps be fitting if I tell where the quotation
originated. I can hardly maintain that the story is calculated to throw
any light on the dark problem."
"Only tell it," cried one after another.
"Who knows whether the donkey that you will ride before us may not
finally open his mouth, like Balaam's prophetic ass, and teach us the
system of the world."
Eugene shook his head with a peculiar smile, and began. "You know that
I suffered from my wound during the entire winter of '71 and '72, and
could only limp around with a cane. When spring came, I surrendered
myself to the care of my married sister. My brother-in-law's manor is
surrounded by endless pine forests, in which I was to take air baths.
Whatever I gained in physical strength, as I wandered about each day in
those lonely thickets, or lay lazily buried in cushions of deep,
luxuriant moss, I lost again in my moral condition. Even in the
hospital I had not seemed to myself such a miserable cripple as here.
Everything about me was overflowing with life and strength; every old
knot bore countless bright-green shoots; even a rotten stump made
itself useful as barracks for a swarming army of ants--and I, condemned
to detestable idleness at twenty-four--enough! I moped about half the
time, and was on very bad terms with God and the world.
"About this time, too, I lived through a sickness which might have
ended my brooding. The neighborhood is thinly populated; the people are
very poor; the women frightfully ugly,--Bohemian types degenerated by
crossing with the Saxons, pinched and rendered half savage through
privation and suffering. But I was perfectly contented that nothing
charming crossed my path. It would have made the consciousness of my
invalidism still more painful. You know, indeed, how long it takes for
the last trace of the typhoid poison, so paralyzing to all energy, to
disappear from one's system. The North Sea was to do me this service.
"Well, for several weeks, like mad Roland, though somewhat more
mildly, I roamed through pine and fir-covered ravines without making a
shot, although a hunting-piece was slung at my back. It was truly, in
spite of all world-griefs, a heavenly time; never have I had such
intimate acquaintance with nature, never felt so vividly what is meant
by 'our mother earth' and 'our father air.' But that does not belong
here. I will come to the point.
"One afternoon I allowed myself to be lured farther than usual from the
house by a most beautiful path winding among young woods, whose slender
trees, scarcely taller than I, allowed the May sunlight to stream
through unchecked. When I found myself entirely astray, I decided to
strike through to the edge of the forest, in order to regain an open
view. A gentle slope, sparsely covered with birches and berry-bushes,
led upwards. Beyond, through the tall firs which enclosed the clearing
like a fence, I could see blue mountain-tops shimmering in the
distance, and knew that I might thence easily find my way. But as I
came out of the forest, I realized for the first time how far I had
wandered. From the forest edge the land sank by a tolerably steep slope
to a plain; and far below lay a small town, well known to me on the
map, but so distant from our estate, that in all my reconnoitring I had
never seen it till now. I was startled when I realized where I was,
for, with my lame leg, I could not possibly undertake to return on
foot. But I thought I might obtain a team in the village.
"I seated myself on a newly-fallen trunk to rest a little before
descending to the town. The land beneath me lay in the deep calm of
afternoon; thin clouds of smoke drifting up from the chimneys of the
old houses announced that the good housewives were making their coffee.
The broad, level plain, gayly checkered with fields of promising, green
crops, stretched beyond; while almost exactly half way between the
forest-edge and the first houses, and bordered by a few bushes and
elders, lay a great fish-pond, peculiarly dark in color, although the
purest spring-heaven was mirrored therein. The ground about it was
marshy, and it seemed as though all the water of the neighborhood
flowed into the depression as into some monstrous cistern. I do not
know why the black basin appeared so uncanny to me, for the birds
nesting in the shrubbery on its banks flew over it continually with
cheerful twitterings. But my gloomy humor drew nourishment just then
from the most innocent sources.
"When I finally raised my eyes to look about for some smooth,
gradually-descending path, I noticed at the right, scarcely a stone's
throw from my seat, a forlorn, mean little house standing in shadow
close by the roots of the foremost trees. The old, tumbled-down fence
surrounding a bit of ground; the dove-cot, in which no living thing was
stirring; the tiled roof, whose damages had been poorly repaired with
shingles and stones from the fields--all looked desolate and
dilapidated, but since a path must surely lead thence to the town, I
arose and dragged myself slowly towards the hut.
"As soon as I perceived the extreme desolation of the old barracks, I
gave up my conjecture that a lumberman dwelt there. All the mortar had
fallen away from the wall on the weather side, and the rain must have
had free entrance through the holes in the deeply sunken roof. The
piece of land behind the crumbling fence, which in times past might
have supported a little garden or a few vegetable beds, had become a
waste rubbish heap, upon which a single black hen tripped about,
excitedly scratching between the weeds and nettles for something
eatable. The north side, turned towards the slope, had two small
windows with broken panes; and in the middle, a door standing wide
open. I glanced into the unattractive entrance. No human being was to
be seen or heard. I was about to go back and follow a little foot-path
which seemed to wind down into the valley, when I was startled, indeed,
truly frightened, by a donkey's bray; for never in my life have I heard
that odd cry given so passionately, and with such peculiarly mournful
modulation, as at that moment.
"The cry of pain came from the other side of the house. As I turned the
corner, I saw in the meadow, close to the wall, an idyllic group
crouched in the young grass: an old woman, clothed in a torn jacket of
flowered calico and a coarse woollen petticoat, and wearing wound about
her head a gray handkerchief, from beneath which her black hair,
thickly sprinkled with gray, hung down in disorder; and near her,
stretched upon the ground, a young donkey with noticeably slender
limbs, dark-edged ears, and a coat of silver-gray, adorned on the back
with a black stripe extending to the head. It was a fine animal, an
honor to its race, and it would certainly have taken a prize at any
show. But I immediately perceived why the poor creature relieved its
oppressed heart in so particularly doleful a manner. A hand's-breadth
on its left shoulder-blade was disfigured by a foul wound; this the old
woman was attempting to cover with wet bandages, although the wounded
brute restively tried to prevent her merciful ministrations with kicks
and stampings of its forelegs. A shallow bowl by the woman's side held
some dark liquid, with which she saturated the rag in order to cool the
wound. She quietly continued this operation as I approached her.
"'Good-morning, dame!' said I. She merely nodded her head wearily.
Beginning to speak of the wound, I asked how it had been received, and
what remedy she was using. No answer. It occurred to me that she did
not understand German. But as I turned away, exclaiming half to myself,
'What a pity! Such a beautiful brute!' her gray eyes suddenly flashed
so powerfully upon me from under her bushy, black brows, that the whole
withered, leather-colored face seemed ten years younger.
"'Yes indeed, sir!' she said in notably pure German, with but a slight
Bohemian accent. 'It is truly a pity, and Minka is certainly beautiful.
If only you had seen her before she was hurt! She could jump about
almost like a young horse, and her coat was like silk and velvet. Now,
for seven months she has lain thus miserably on her belly, and if she
gets up on her legs, how her knees bend, poor creature! Besides, what
use is she? "Betty Lamitz," said the forest warder only yesterday, as
he passed and saw the trouble I had with the brute--for now one must
bring even its bit of fodder close to its muzzle--"you should have her
killed," said he; "the skinner will give you a thaler for the hide."
But no! said I; it's only a beast, but it shall have care like any
other Christian being, or like an honest servant fallen sick in
service! Yes, so I said. Whoa, whoa, Minka! don't roll about so! Look,
sir, she lies on her back and rubs her wound all the time, so no
plaster holds, and it spreads farther and farther. Whoa! Be still!'
"Then, fairly embracing the beast, she tried to quiet it, and keep it
in its bed. Suddenly she released it, ran to a wooden well standing in
shadow back of the house, and having filled a low pail from the old
stone trough into which the water was trickling down, she thrust it
under her charge's pink muzzle. Minka drank in long draughts, and her
feverish excitement visibly abated. The old woman sat near her, looking
on with great contentment, and seeming once more entirely oblivious to
"At length I repeated my inquiry as to the origin of the bad wound
between the shoulder-blades. But the old woman again remained silent;
she merely sighed, and scratched her lean arms with her withered
lingers till white streaks stood up on the brown skin.
"'Yes, yes!' she said absently, after a long while--'such a poor
female! What matters beauty against bad luck? And how she has worked,
always cheerfully and willingly! I could load her as much as I wished,
she never once kicked, or even shook her ears at me. To be sure, I have
brought her up from her tenth day. She was a twin. The forester at
Freithof had a she-ass that presented him one morning with Minka and
her sister. "Would you like to have a handsome nursling, Mother
Lamitz?" said he, just for a joke. Well, I held him to his word. He
owed me a little gold for a piece of linen that I had woven for him. A
couple of florins were still lacking, and for them I took the young
ass. I had trouble enough, first in getting it home, and then in
raising it, for milk was scarce with us. But we have never rued it. A
hard worker, sir, this Minka! We have had to drag many things from the
woods, berries and mushrooms down to market in summer, then our winter
wood, and whatsoever else was needful. I--good heavens! I can trace all
my bones, although I am barely fifty, and Hannah--well, she was still
too weak. And look you, such a faithful beast, a god-send, our only
help--to be so hurt and disgraced in its young years--oh!'
"'Dame,' said I, 'look at me! I too am still young, yet I limp through
the world, and my food must be brought to me because I can no longer
gain it by my own strength; and whoever gives a thaler for my hide is
a fool and a spendthrift. Yet who knows, but that sometime we shall
both prance gayly about once more.'
"I chatted in this strain for some time to cheer her, but, without
heeding me, she stared fixedly at the wound. She had meanwhile covered
it with a firm plaster, since the brute would no longer suffer the
"'Tell me once for all,' she suddenly commenced, and by the gleam
of her eyes I saw that when young she must have been far from
homely--'tell me once for all, sir, do you believe that donkeys go to
"Why do you ask that, mother?
"'I once asked our parson about it. He said it was a foolish question;
that only Christian people go to heaven; and that animals have no
immortal souls. "But, parson," said I, "if the great God is just and
merciful, why doesn't He pity the beasts too, as human beings do if
they are not scoundrels? For instance, why does Minka's sister live
like a princess, have nothing to do but draw a little play-wagon in
which the young masters take an occasional pleasure drive, always
receive kind words and the best fodder, and even have a love-affair
with the valley-miller's donkey? And our Minka, who has just as good a
character, who wears herself out with work, and is often on her legs
with a load for ten hours together, now has all four struck from under
her, and if she should die to-morrow, what pleasure in life has she
had? Is that just, parson? And if it is not sometime paid back to her
there above--" But then he forbade me to speak, and said such blasphemy
led straight to hell. You tell me, sir, do you know anything about it?'
"You can imagine that I did not have the most spirited expression, when
the pistol was thus placed against my breast, and the explanation of
the world-secret demanded of me. Fortunately, however, just at that
moment a woman's clear voice began to sing within the house, and with
it one heard a child's feeble crying, which the song was evidently
intended to still.
"'Who is singing there, Mother Lamitz?' I asked.
"'Who should it be but Hannah?' she grumbled.
"'Your daughter? May I venture to look in at her?'
"The old woman did not reply; muttering to herself, she took the pail
and carried it back to the well; then she rolled forward a wheelbarrow
piled high with grass and weeds, and busied herself in giving handfuls
to the sick beast, almost shoving the food into its mouth. I did not
wait long for an expressed permission, but approached the house, and,
after knocking, entered by the door at the left.
"A suffocating steam greeted me, mixed with the smell of some drying
clothes, which hung across the room on a tightly stretched rope. I saw
immediately that there were only a few miserable swaddling-clothes and
baby-frocks, coarse and much patched.
"In one corner stood a great loom, thickly covered with dust; in the
other, upon a heap of straw, distinguishable from the bed of an animal
only by a woollen covering, sat a fair-haired young woman, holding a
half naked babe at her breast. She herself had nothing on her body but
a shirt, which had fallen far down on her shoulders, and a red woollen
petticoat, which left her white feet visible to the ankles.
"As I entered, she gazed at me searchingly, and for an instant ceased
her singing. She seemed to have expected someone else; but, seeing that
I was an entire stranger, she at once recommenced her cradle-song,
though somewhat more softly, apparently not at all disturbed because I
had surprised her in the performance of a mother's most sacred duty,
and in such incomplete attire.
"As she sang she occasionally smiled at me, showing the pretty teeth in
her large mouth; and I noticed that she clasped the child closer to her
bared breast, and tried to draw the shirt up over her shoulders.
Therewith a slight redness tinged her round, white face, and her blue
eyes assumed a half imploring, half simple and dreamily vacant,
"I excused myself for intruding; her mother had allowed me to come in;
I would immediately go out again if she wished. She hummed her song
without appearing to notice me; but from time to time she would
suddenly lift her eyes, as if to see whether I were still there; then
bite her full, red under-lip; rock the child back and forth; and, with
her bare feet in the straw, beat time to her song.
"The child, which was but a few months old, had drunk and cried itself
to sleep. The cradle-song grew ever softer; at length the young mother,
kneeling down, wrapped the little one, which lay before her like some
rosy, waxen doll, in a great woollen shawl. In the corner near the
pillow I observed a little couch made of old rags and tatters. On this
the baby was gently and carefully laid, and, in spite of the heat,
covered yet again.
"Then the mother, always as if entirely alone in the room, began to let
down and rebraid her tangled, yellow hair. The rest of her toilet
seemed to be perfectly satisfactory.
"Indeed, no elegant costume could have displayed the poor young woman's
charming figure to more advantage. The face was too like the old
woman's to be considered pretty. Yet in the coloring and youthful
contour of that round little head lay a charm, which was not lessened
even by an evident trace of absent-mindedness, or downright imbecility.
I felt intense sympathy for the poor, half-foolish creature, singing
her lullaby so contentedly in such pitiable deprivation of all usual
"She did not answer any of my questions even by a gesture. Since they
had plenty of wood and did not grudge it, the oven was heated almost to
bursting; although the air without was mild enough, even here on the
windy height. So I did not wait until she finished arranging her heavy
braids, but laid a shining thaler on the edge of the loom, nodded
kindly to the harmless creature, and left the room.
"I found the old woman no longer by her sick darling, but at the well,
where she was cleaning a handful of turnips and cutting them into a
"'Mother Lamitz,' said I, 'you have a very pretty daughter. But she
would not speak a word to me. Is she always so silent with strangers?'
"The old woman contracted her brows and stared gloomily at the pot
which she held between her knees. In this attitude she might have
served an artist as model for a witch preparing some noxious potion.
"'Silent?' she asked after a pause. 'No, sir; it is not her tongue that
is lacking. When she will, she can chatter like a starling. The lack is
above. She was so even as a child. Well, it was not such a great shame.
If she had had the best sense, would that have helped a poor,
fatherless thing like her? Did it matter to me that I had all my five
senses right? I was cheated in spite of them, and therefore I care not
a whit whether the brat to which she has given life takes after her, as
people say, or after me. Either way, the little Mary will sometime
become a mother on the sly, as it came into the world on the sly. It is
in the family, sir, it is in the family.'
"And then, after a pause, for I knew not what to say to this frank
worldly wisdom--'Besides, the child will hardly grow old. Hannah treats
it too foolishly. Indeed, reason has nothing to do with her actions.
And when the winter comes, and we all must hunger--it is said, though,
that God lets no sparrow fall from a roof without His will--I am
curious to see whether He will trouble Himself about us four poor
females up here.'
"Therewith she gazed pityingly at the donkey, which was now crouching
quietly in its bedding. I could have laughed to see her so
unconcernedly consider gray, long-eared Minka as the fourth in the
family; but the horrible cold-bloodedness with which she spoke of her
child and grandchild was not humorous.
"'You seem to care much more tenderly for the donkey than for your
poor, little grandchild,' I said severely.
"She nodded her head calmly.
"'So it is,' she said; 'Minka needs me more. If I die to-day, she must
come to a miserable end. Do you think Hannah would throw her even an
armful of grass, although the poor beast can no longer seek it herself?
No; she has no thought except for her baby, and beyond that, for the
rascal who is its father. She waits for him every evening at sunset,
although it is already a half year since he last crossed our threshold.
And withal she is as happy as any one can wish to be, considers the
dear God a good man, and lets her old mother do all the housework
without any help. Why should I pity her or her brat? Both are already
as if in heaven, and if it goes hard with them, and they must hunger
and freeze, can they not make that good hereafter in Paradise? But
Minka, look you, sir, has had no lover, and brought no young one into
the world, and when she dies she will be thrown in the flaying-place,
and on doomsday, when we other poor sinners gather our bones together,
of her nothing at all will be left, and it will never be credited to
her that she had a harder life than her twin sister. Look you, some
other poor Christian mortal must pity the beasts if our Lord Jesus
Himself cannot bring Himself to do it.'
"This logic allowed no reply. But I confess that the future of the
little human being was more momentous to me, in spite of its immortal
soul, than the question whether Minka would lose or not in the final
distribution of justice. If to-morrow the only person among these 'four
females' who had sound human sense should be struck by lightning, what
would then become of the poor fool and her baby?
"'Does the father do nothing at all for the little one?' I asked at
last. 'The child is as beautiful as if carved out of ivory, and it is
by no means certain that it will become like the mother. Has he never
shown himself again?'
"'He!' exclaimed the old woman, thrusting the knife with which she had
been cleaning the turnips deep into the wooden well-spout. 'If I should
drag him to justice, he would swear himself free, that he would,
although he is the town-judge's own son. Do you think I did not see it
in him, even the first time when he came into our little house to
kindle his pipe at the hearth--so he said, the villain! He is
unfortunately as pretty to look at as he is bad within, and the stupid
thing, Hannah she was still innocent, and I could let her wander all
day long in the woods alone with Minka, filling the two panniers with
berries and mushrooms--she thought of no man then, and I--God knows how
it came about! Just because she is so foolish and weak in her head, I
imagined that no one would trouble about her. But she pleased the
judge's son, and was herself instantly carried away with him. After
that I had trouble enough with her. She had worked bravely till then in
the house and garden, and no work was too hard for her. Now, of a
sudden, half the day her hands in her lap, and if I began to scold she
would smile at me like a child waking from a lovely dream. If I sent
her to the woods, she would bring the baskets back to the house
scarcely a quarter full. It was Minka's misfortune too. You cannot
believe, sir, how the beast clung to Hannah; it had human sense, anyway
more than Hannah, and realized that the smart fellow with the black
mustache had nothing good in mind. It always ran after the stupid girl,
and gave a loud bray to warn her. I saw everything well enough, but
what could I do? Scoldings and warnings were useless; she did not
understand. And one cannot shut up a grown woman, who will use force to
get out. She would have climbed from the window or even the chimney to
rush into the very arms of ruin. Well, and so it happened. But the
worst of it was that Minka suffered for it too. One evening she
followed the girl into the woods, and soon afterward came limping home
alone, with the wound in her neck, groaning and crying like a human
being. Hannah came back an hour later. I questioned her closely as to
how the brute had received the wound. "Ha!" said she, laughing
insolently, "she screamed all the time and crowded between us, although
Frank tried to drive her back with blows; so he suddenly became angry,
drew his knife, and gave her a thrust." I struck the shameless thing
for laughing about it, and put salve on the wound. But Minka rolled on
her back as if crazy, and would bear no bandage, and so it has grown
worse with her every day, and with Hannah too. Well, at least she has
had her way, and nothing much better could have happened to her. Who
would take one like her for his honest wife? And if sometime she
realizes that it is useless to wait for her lover, and becomes crazy
with grief at his wickedness, then she has little wit to lose. Whereas
Minka, sir, who is cleverer than many people, believe me, she lies for
days pondering why good and bad are so unequally divided on the earth;
why she has nothing but a ruined life, while her sister trots about
elegant and happy; and why our good Lord did not arrange it so that
donkeys might go to heaven, and obtain their reward for all the flaying
and toiling, beating and kniving, they have to bear.'
"She uttered these last words with such violence that she was obliged
to stop for breath. Then, brushing back the loose hairs at her neck,
she tied her head-cloth more firmly, and took the pot of turnips on her
"'I must go in, sir,' she said hoarsely, 'or I shall go to bed hungry.
Do you know the town-judge and his fine son? It does not matter. He
will not have to pay for what he did to my girl and to Minka until he
stands before God's throne. And for the rest, why should his conscience
prick him? She wished nothing better; indeed, we all wish nothing
better; if we were not silly, you men could not be bad. So it will be
as long as the world lasts. At doomsday I shall not complain of that,
but I shall ask our Lord whether donkeys go to heaven too, of that you
may be sure--of that you may certainly be sure!'
"She nodded her head vigorously, passed by without another look at me,
and disappeared in the house.
"You can imagine that, as I descended the slope, passing the black
water, and finally reaching the village, all that I had seen and heard
continually pursued me. Even when I had secured a carriage at the inn,
and was rolling along the highway towards my brother-in-law's house,
the figure of the old woman, and especially that of her blonde daughter
with the naked babe clasped to her breast, seemed actually before my
eyes. It chanced that my driver was an elderly man, who could give
trustworthy answers to my questions about the inmates of the little
house on the hill. He remembered Betty Lamitz's sudden appearance there
twenty years ago very well. Her own home was in a neighboring place,
where, her mother having died without leaving any property, the parish
refused to receive her. She was a servant in an aristocratic house in
Prague, and behaved properly enough until one of the sons of the house,
an officer home on a furlough, noticed her. She had been a fine-looking
person even at thirty, in spite of her flat nose and broad cheeks, a
maid with unusual eyes, and when she laughed--which to be sure she
seldom did--she could cut out many younger women even then. But things
simply went the usual way, in spite of her cleverness, and although she
had always said she would never do as her own mother had done. Of
course her master did not keep her in the house. He gave her a suitable
sum of money, with which she bought the forsaken hill-house and the bit
of garden plot, and since then, as she would not go into service again,
perhaps could not, she had lived there and brought Hannah up, in
perfect retirement. For the first few years the young count remembered
her, and sent her something. After awhile he failed to do this, and she
was obliged to struggle along by herself. She had done so; and
certainly no one could accuse her of grief at her child's lack of
"Then my driver spoke of the sad affair with the judge's son, against
whom he expressed himself in very strong terms. Every one knew about
it. But he was the only son of a most respectable family, and no one
could expect him to make amends for the foolish mis-step by an honest
marriage. A wild, insane thing! Why didn't the old woman watch her
better? If he did a little something for the child, no one would blame
him much for this youthful sin.
"I listened without entering into any discussion of the moral aspect of
the case. In my heart--I know not why--I felt such intense sympathy for
the poor creature, that if her betrayer had come in my way, I would
have thrashed him with much pleasure.
"My first action, when I saw my people again, was to tell them of my
experience, and induce my good sister to take some interest in the
neglected young woman. She was true to her sympathetic nature. The next
day she sent her 'Mamselle,' an experienced, elderly person, in a
carriage to Mother Lamitz's hut, with a basket containing all sorts of
good things--provisions for several weeks, baby-clothes, and several
uncut dress pieces to provide for the winter. To this I added a trifle
in cash, fully intending to go in person very soon, and see if this
feeble attempt to make up the deficiencies of the world-system had been
at all effectual.
"But I did not go. Our physician ordered me to take sea-baths earlier
than I expected. I merely heard that our gifts were received by the old
woman with but moderate thanks, and by the young mother with child-like
exultation. Then I departed, remaining away the entire summer, and the
inmates of that forest hut soon became of as little moment to me as any
beggar into whose hat one tosses a groschen.
"Even when, after having washed away in the sea my invalidism and its
accompanying world-sickness, I returned to the estate in the autumn for
hunting, it did not occur to me for several weeks to inquire about the
'four females.' My sister and her husband had themselves been away, and
been occupied with entirely different things. On a lonely tramp which I
undertook one cold, cloudy, disagreeable day in the middle of October,
I suddenly recollected that I had wandered over the same forest-path
five months before, and that it had finally led me to the donkey with
the 'immortal soul.' What might have happened to Minka in the meantime?
"I stepped along more briskly, for evening was already coming on. It
was dark and comfortless in the forest; the moisture dripped heavily
from the pines; the little clearings, with their bushes and birches,
were not so cheerful, in spite of the red berries hanging plentifully
on their faded branches, as on that day in May, when I alone wore a
troubled face. When I finally emerged from the pines at the edge of the
height, the land below me and the purplish peaks on the horizon looked
as strange as if a terrible storm were impending. The air was perfectly
still; one heard each drop falling on the dry leaves, and, from time to
time, the crows, very numerous in that locality, cawing in the
treetops. The noise was so hateful to me that, in a sort of sudden
fury, I snatched my gun from my shoulder, and fired into the
unsuspecting flock. A single bird fell fluttering and quivering at my
feet. I felt ashamed of this childish outburst and hurried towards the
hut, which, standing in its old place, and in the same condition,
looked extremely desolate in the murky evening mist.
"The enclosed space had beautified itself with half a dozen tall
sunflowers and with several rows of pumpkin-vines growing over the
rubbish-heap; but the black hen had evidently failed to outlive the
summer. On the side of the house where the brook flowed, and where
Minka had lain, there was no longer any trace of her. Possibly it was
now too cold on this damp couch for the poor, wounded beast. But where
had she gone? I laughed to myself as I realized that the fate of the
brute creature was more interesting to me than that of the hut's human
inmates. Of them nothing was to be seen or heard.
"In the room where the loom stood, excepting that the straw-bed was
empty, everything appeared as at my first visit. But the oven was cold
and all the windows were open. I pressed the door-latch of the single,
mean chamber on the right of the narrow hall. Here I was amazed to find
one at least of the 'four females,' the good Minka herself. She lay on
a litter of yellow leaves, moss, and pine-needles, close to a low
hearth, whereon coals were still glowing; and as she saw me enter, she
lifted her head wearily.
"The old woman must have housed here, since, besides cooking utensils,
all sorts of woman's trumpery was lying about, while on the other side
of the hearth stood an ancient, grandfather's chair, with torn
cushions, plainly Mother Lamitz's bedstead. She had evidently brought
her sick darling into her immediate vicinity.
"I approached the poor creature and stroked her coat, for which
attention her ears wagged a doleful gratitude. The wound had grown
worse; indeed, her whole condition was serious, and for the first time
I saw on an animal something like the hippocratic face. Seeing that I
was friendly, she made a painful effort to unburden her distressed
heart; but no longer able to express herself satisfactorily, she soon
became silent again, and with an indescribably piteous look let her
tongue loll from her mouth, thus taking away her last trace of beauty
in my eyes. As I could not help her, I went out in a few moments,
leaving the door open; for the close air, which I could scarcely
breathe, must have been equally unbearable for a sick donkey.
"Outside I looked about in all directions. Of grandmother, mother, or
child--not a trace. In the forest--but what could they be seeking there
so late, and in such horrible weather? They have gone down to the town,
thought I, to make some purchases. But nobody knows when they will
"To await them in the damp hut was out of the question. I thought that
perhaps I might meet them on the way down, as I intended to descend and
return by the highroad, instead of the dark, slippery forest path. So
once again I took the little path between the meadows, and heard then,
for the first time, a muffled sound of musical instruments, principally
clarionets and contrabasses, evidently coming from the inn in the town
below. Although dance music, it was far from merry; indeed, it seemed
but a proper accompaniment to the melancholy song heaven and earth were
singing together; as if cloud spirits were playing a waltz to which
they might whirl madly over the cold mountain-tops.
"The neighborhood is not musical. Only occasionally, when a band of
wandering Bohemians strays into this corner of the hills, does one hear
merry tunes in lively time; but even a Bohemian band can seldom set in
motion the clumsy feet of the men and maids.
"However, that scarcely belongs to my subject. I will be brief. I had
not taken twenty steps when I saw, down by the fishpond, sitting on a
mossy stone, a woman's motionless figure, with the back turned toward
me. She seemed to be staring into the black water. I could scarcely see
the outline, yet I recognized her at once.
"'Mother Lamitz!' I cried, 'Mother Lamitz!'
"At the third call, and when I was very close to her, she slowly turned
her head, but I could not see her eyes.
"'Why do you sit here on a wet stone, Mother Lamitz?' I asked. 'Have
you thrown a net and do you wish to haul your catch? Or for whom are
you waiting in this unhealthy fog?'
"She looked straight into my face, evidently trying to remember the
person to whom these features and this voice belonged. But it dawned on
her very slowly.
"I helped somewhat by recalling to her mind my spring visit, and
telling her that since then I had often considered whether or no
donkeys would go to heaven, and had never arrived at any conclusion.
She listened silently, but I was not certain that she rightly
understood my meaning, for she nodded continually, even when I asked a
question demanding a negative answer.
"But when I mentioned her daughter's name, she became suddenly alert,
looking suspiciously at me from under her thick brows.
"'What do you want with Hannah?' she said. 'She is not at home. But she
is very well, she and her brat. Did I tell you she was a trifle weak in
the head? In that I lied. She had more sense than most of the foolish
geese. Oh, I wish that I might have gone away so, but there are
different gifts, and how does the Testament say? Those who are poor in
spirit--yes, yes. O thou merciful One!'
"Stopping suddenly, she spread her hands on her knees and let her head
fall upon her breast.
"She seemed more and more uncanny to me. It was ghastly there by the
bank; the bats were beginning to flit among the low bushes, and the
rising wind brought a musty swamp odor. From below came the unceasing
music of the clarionets and basses.
"Merely to break the silence, I said, 'There seems to be high festival
in the inn down yonder. Is it a feast?'
"She sprang to her feet, again looking distrustfully at me. 'Have you
only just heard it? They have piped and fiddled so since noonday, and
will go on till midnight. I have stopped my ears, but it is useless.
Weddings are not funerals--one knows that very well--but if they knew,
if they knew! To be sure they would not have one waltz the less. O thou
"'Whose wedding is it?'
"Spitting violently, she cast a furious look across the pond towards
the house from which the sounds arose.
"'Go down there and look at the pair for yourself,' she snarled; 'they
suit each other well. He is bad and handsome, and she is stupid and
rich. A brewer's daughter, she measures her money by the bushel. But
she has reason enough to answer a question correctly, and she did not
say no when the parson asked her if she wished the judge's son for a
"'The judge's son! He?' Now, indeed, I knew the cause of the old
"'Poor Hannah! And does she know what is going on down there?'
"'How could she help knowing, sir? Do you think there are not
sympathetic souls enough to carry such news wherever they are likely to
earn God's blessing for it? She sat just before the door with her baby
on her lap; she was decked out in her best clothes, that blue dress,
you know, which the lady baroness sent her; and her baby was dancing to
the music. Then the druggist's maid came down, pretending that she
passed by accident, but it was the wickedest curiosity, dear sir, to
see how the poor fool would act when she heard that her lover was
holding his wedding feast down there. She did not tell it to Hannah.
"Mother Betsey!" she screamed in to me, "the judge's son! What do you
say to that?" and then she abused the badness of the world. I merely
blinked at her, for I thought I should sink into the earth. I never
believed he would marry Hannah, but she waited for him every evening,
and was so happy doing so, that she might have expected him for all
eternity, and sung her cradle-songs contentedly. And now the whole
baseness of it, and the news of the marriage with the brewer's
daughter, to come on her so suddenly--as if a trusted friend had thrust
a knife in her breast. The words stuck in the spiteful tell-tale's
throat as she saw what she had done. She said she must hurry; her
mistress expected her, and she ran off. I went out and saw the poor
thing sitting on the bank, with her head leaning back on the wall as if
too heavy for her, and her eyes and mouth wide open.
"'"Hannah!" I coaxed, "do not believe it--she lied," and as much more
as I could bear to say. She did not speak, but all at once laughed
aloud, and stood up, holding her child fast in her arms.
"'"Where are you going?" I said. "Come into the house. I will brew you
some elder tea." But it was as if she did not hear me. She went slowly
away from the house, down the path. I followed, trying to hold her back
by her clothing, but there was something superhuman in her; her face
was rigid and deathly pale. "Hannah," said I, "you are not going to
him? Think what they would say if you went to the wedding. They would
say you were out of your wits, and by and by the law would come and
take away the child, because they dare not leave it with an idiot."
"'That brought her to her senses for a moment. She stood still,
clasping the child silently, and sighing as if her soul would leave her
body. I thought I had won, and that she would turn back with me and
gradually give in. If she could have cried it would have been her
salvation, but her eyes were perfectly dry, and I saw her stare
continually at the house down there, as if she would pierce the walls
and destroy that bad man and his bridge with the wreath and veil. I
begged her to come into the house. I realized then that I had nothing
in the world but her, and I told her so, asking her to forgive me for
all my roughness and unkindness to her. Dear God, when one is so
miserable, and another hungry mouth comes into the house! But she heard
nothing. The music seemed to bewitch her; she began to rock the child
back and forth; then of a sudden she gave a loud cry, as if her heart
had broken, and before I knew what she meant to do, she was rushing
down to the pond. Her loose hair streamed after her, the blue clothes
fluttered, she ran so fast, and--O thou merciful One!--with my own eyes
I saw it--child and grandchild! I tried to scream, I was choking; I ran
like a madman; as I came down, I saw only the black water, bubbling
like a kettle at the place where--'
"She sprang up, and stood half bowed among the damp marsh grasses like
a picture of despair, both arms outstretched toward the now motionless
"I could not speak a word. Every instant I thought she would throw
herself in after them. The spot where we were standing seemed
peculiarly suitable for a suicide. The bank shelved perpendicularly
into the depths; no rushes grew out of the water; the alder bushes,
retreating, left a gap several feet in width; and even close to shore
the water was as dark as if the depths were bottomless.
"But the old woman seemed to intend nothing violent. Her body relaxed
again and her arms fell loosely on her hips.
"'Do you see anything there?' she asked suddenly, in an undertone.
"'Down there by the willow? No; it is nothing. I thought her hair came
to the surface. But she is lying at the bottom. At first something
yellow floated out on the water--I would swear it was her hair--and the
long rake there, left since haying-time--if I had taken it, and fished
for the hair with it, and twisted it fast around the prongs, I believe
I could have pulled her to land even then. But say for yourself, sir,
what would it have mattered? She would have jumped in again. And
wouldn't it have been wicked to rob her of the rest she has found down
there? Who knows that I should have drawn out the poor brat with her!
And without her only plaything, what could she do in the world?'
"She stopped again, rubbing her lean shoulders with her crossed arms as
if she felt a fever-chill. The music paused in the inn below; I heard
the old woman's quick, gasping breaths, and now and then a disconnected
word as if of prayer. This sad stillness was suddenly interrupted by a
hoarse bray from the woods above. We both looked around.
"Lame Minka stood before the hut's door, giving her most doleful signal
of distress. Against the dark background the outline of the beast's
gray form was plainly visible; we could even see her shake her drooping
ears. She must have noticed us, for though we did not call her, she
started down the rough and tiresome road to her old nurse.
"'Are you coming, too?' said the old woman. 'Are you thirsty, because I
forgot to fill your pail? Do you see, sir, that I am right? Minka has
human reason. She too would make an end of her trouble and misery. And
it is better so; it will take her at once from her suffering, and I--do
you know, that I believe even yet that donkeys go to heaven? If not,
why have they human reason? Who knows, when he fears to die, that it is
really the end? And now look at Minka, how steadily she trots toward
the black water. Come, Minka, come, poor fool! We will help you down.'
"The brute came to the stone where the old woman was crouching. It
thrust its large head in her lap, and fell on its knees. The old woman
helped it up again.
"'Come, Minka,' she repeated, 'it will do no harm, and perhaps may help
you to eternal happiness. Hannah has gone before, with little Mary.
Mother Betsey will soon follow.'
"She drew the reluctant animal to the edge of the pond and tried to
force it in. But entreaties and caresses were as vain as the pushes and
blows to which she finally resorted. The poor victim, its whole body
trembling, braced all four feet against the bank and gave a piteous
cry. The old woman cast an imploring glance at me.
"'You have a gun at your back, sir. Will you not do my Minka this last
kindness, and help her to her salvation? The Lord God will repay you
the little powder and lead which you spend on a tortured creature; and
if there is justice, and we meet again up yonder, Minka, too, will not
be wanting, and then you shall see that, after the ass that bore our
Lord into Jerusalem, there will be none more beautiful than Minka in
"How could I withstand such a touching request? I cocked my gun, came
close to the good creature, and shot a bullet through its head. It fell
headlong into the water; the gray head appeared for an instant, then
sank and left no trace.
"The old woman fell upon her knees; I saw her fold her withered hands
and move her lips silently. Undoubtedly, she breathed a prayer for
Minka's departed soul.
"Then she arose wearily. 'I thank you, sir,' she said. 'You have just
done me a greater kindness than when you sent me the money. When you go
home give my respects to the lady baroness. Tell her I need nothing
more. Three are already at rest, and the fourth will not delay long.
And so may God preserve you. I am freezing. I shall go back to the
house and warm myself a little. The night will be cold and the house is
empty. May God reward you a thousandfold, sir! No; you shall not go
with me! I have no one, and the cursed music will let me sleep very
well if I stop my ears tightly enough. Good-night, sir! Rest well. And
the Lord God above will understand and deal kindly with us. Amen!'
"She crossed herself and bowed quietly. Then she climbed the slope
across the meadow, and I watched her until she reached her hut above
and closed the door behind her.
"I myself returned to the path in a state of mind that baffles
description. The universal misery of mankind was about the drift of it.
But other elements mingling with it gave the peculiar experience
something at once grotesque and awful. A professional psychologist
would have had difficulty in understanding it.
"Fortunately the weather took care that I did not lose myself in this
bottomless pit of fruitless speculation. Just as I reached the first
houses, the rain began to fall in such torrents that I was obliged to
seek shelter and wait until the storm should abate before attempting to
return to the estate. Naturally, I hastened to the inn. I had a certain
curiosity to see the famous judge's son on this day, when his old
sweetheart had quietly taken herself out of the world to make room for
his new one.
"It was a middle-class wedding of the usual sort. I looked through
the open door into the hall, where the table had been removed to
make room for the dancers. The wedding pair immediately struck my eyes,
not unfavorably either; he was precisely such a man as I imagined,
curly-headed, therefore popular among women, and with a frivolous,
insolent face; on the whole, a good-looking rascal of the most common
type. The young wife in her myrtle wreath, a provincial beauty,
appeared much in love with her husband, but, from continual dancing
with him, was too red and overheated to be lovely. Since she was rich,
the husband had in fact obtained a better lot than his villainous deed
warranted, and it was hardly to be expected that compensating justice
would make him do penance for his sins through this marriage. He did
not seem to be a man who would endure such penance calmly, much less
pass even one sleepless night in useless thoughts upon the moral system
of the world.
"The wretch disgusted me. Joining the peasants in the bar-room below, I
drank my glass of beer in a very bitter mood, while the floor above
creaked and trembled under the stamping and springing of the dancers,
and the rain beat against the windows. This continued for more than an
hour; then the rain ceased, the clouds moved towards the mountains, and
the moon appeared. I decided to look about for a team, since the roads
were now unfit for walking, and the wedding uproar made the prospect of
a night here intolerable.
"Fortunately, just as I was going out to inquire for a teamster,
I found my brother-in-law's coachman before the door with the
hunting-wagon, my sister having sent him to bring me home. Both he and
his horses needed a rest and a thorough drying. The homeward journey
was so slow that I found everyone at the house asleep, and could not
tell my horrible experience of the previous day till the following
morning as we three sat at breakfast.
"We were still under the influence of the strange tragedy--my sister,
who had visited the 'four females' once during the summer, being
affected even to tears--when the door opened, and my brother-in-law's
steward entered. 'I merely wish to announce, Herr Baron,' he said,
'that there has been a fire during the night. God be thanked, it has
not spread, and was not on our estate. But Mother Betsey's house is
"We looked at one another confounded.
"'How did the fire start, and was any one injured?' asked my
"The man shook his head.
"'They know nothing positively, Herr Baron,' he said. 'At midnight, as
the last dance was being played down in the inn--the judge's son was
holding his wedding feast--they suddenly heard the fire-bells ring from
the towers, and, rushing out, they saw Mother Lamitz's old hut up on
the forest edge in bright flames. The fire streamed as quietly into the
sky as if from a wood-pile, and although half the village was on foot,
and the fire engine was dragged up the mountain, they could do nothing
whatever, the flames having already devoured the last corner of the old
rookery. It was only when there was nothing left to save that they
mastered the fire; the ground walls, about a man's height, alone remain
standing, if they too have not fallen by this time. At first there
seemed to be nothing left of the women and the child. At length some
one discovered in the corner where the loom had stood a ghastly heap of
ashes and blackened bones, undoubtedly the remains of old Betsey, who,
as old women can never be warm enough, probably heated the oven so hot
that the rotten thing burst and the flames reached the rafters of the
loom. She must have been quickly suffocated by the smoke and have died
without further pain. But what became of her daughter and the little
one nobody knows, and as for the donkey, which she esteemed so highly,
not the smallest piece of its hide or bones can be discovered!'"