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 philosophical talk.

"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 heaven--"

"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 my presence.

"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 bathing.

"'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 heaven?'

"I laughed.

"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, expression.

"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 nursery comforts.

"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 pot.

"'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 arm.

"'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 reason.

"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 return.

"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 merciful One!'

"'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 husband.'

"'The judge's son! He?' Now, indeed, I knew the cause of the old woman's fury.

"'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 water.

"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.

"'Where?'

"'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 all Paradise.'

"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 burned.'

"We looked at one another confounded.

"'How did the fire start, and was any one injured?' asked my brother-in-law.

"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!'"