Caroline, Baroness de la Motte Fouque’: “The Castle on the Beach”
Excerpt, “German Stories: Being Tales and Traditions Chiefly Selected from the Literature of Germany.” 1855.
THE CASTLE ON THE BEACH
On the shores of the Baltic, among many other once flourishing, but now deserted villages, there are still seen the remains of one little hamlet, whose mouldering cottages and unweeded gardens, not many years ago, formed a striking contrast to the neatness and beauty of a Castle in the vicinity, which lay close upon the beach.
No symptoms of neglect or poverty met the eye there; the walls and roofs were well-preserved; the agricultural implements were evidently guided by no sluggard’s hands; the cattle looked clean and well-fed; and the best economy showed itself in the house and in the field. The ponds full of limpid water were well-stocked with fish; shrubs and ivy bordered the green turf, and a thousand flowers bloomed freshly in the gardens which surrounded the residence of Count P___, who lived in the Castle with his wife and four children.
The wretched inhabitants of the adjoining village had long comforted themselves with the thought, that their friendly and wealthy neighbor, whose active benevolence they so often experienced, would long remain their liege lord. But a gradual change of matters took place at the Castle; several of the servants were dismissed, others taken into the establishment; the family gradually retired from public life; and at last they seemed purposely to shun the slightest occasion of intercourse with the world.
So striking an alteration in the situation and conduct of the family at the Castle could not fail to be made the subject of much conversation, particularly in the house of Samuel, who kept a small tavern in the village, where the wretched peasants would often barter their little harvest for ardent liquor, and seek to drown the miseries of a painful existence in intoxication and riot.
“Times will change again,” said Natango, an old man of three score and ten years, as he heard the wind howling overhead. “They will change,” he repeated, observing some of the party shaking their heads.
“Yes, yes,” replied another, “times will change when there is no longer an aching head amongst us. Many things change in their world; but few of them for the better.”
“Now, shame on you,” rejoined the old man, “for a chicken-hearted fellow!”
“In good truth,” exclaimed a third, “I know not who may in these times keep a good heart! Will you, my old friend, with all your talking, take staff in hand, and step where the road is broadest?”
“Why man,” replied Natango, “it will not come to that either!”
“Not come to that!” exclaimed the other, rising from his seat with the air of one who knows something which he does not choose to communicate. He added nothing more, but leant his back against the wall, and drawing a deep whiff of his pipe, threw out a volume of smoke from his lips, the ascent of which he endeavored to check by a violent motion with his hand.
Samuel was seated opposite the parties listening eagerly to the conversation which was going forward. For although he seemed to be taking little or no interest in the matter but sat with outstretched legs, his arms supported on his knees, and his head bent lazily down under his matted red locks, yet he ever and anon raised his pale countenance deeply marked with the small-pox, and fixed his little green ferret eyes on the speakers, with a keenness which bespoke more real interest at heart than he chose to profess.
“My last penny against your pipe, Michael,” cried a young lad, “but I know what you mean!”
“Do you?” replied the first, shrugging his shoulders. “You always hit the nail on the head!”
“For this time at least,” rejoined the other. “Did not I see you yesterday as you came down the hill so dejectedly, with a head full of abundant projects for distant voyages doubtless, which the ship then passing had suggested? You went along the side of the Castle-garden, and you found Olga seated near the wall, under the oak which the count’s grandfather planted. The poor old body did not at first return your greeting, for her eyes were covered with her apron, and she had not perceived your approach; but when you stopped, and again called, ‘Good evening, Olga! How are you? Why thus alone here?’ she only answered you with a nod, and lifted both her hands to heaven, as if she would have said, ‘God above only knows how I am.’”
“Well,” interrupted Michael impatiently; “and what more?”
“This more,” replied the other. “You sat down beside her; and, perhaps, your own heart felt as oppressed at that moment as hers.”
Here Michael drew a deep sigh, and allowed the clouds of smoke to obscure his sorrowful countenance.
“At first,” continued the other, “you did not speak, and Olga remained weeping in silence. At length you inquired gently, ‘Have you had any dispute with your mistress, Olga?’—‘Oh, heaven forbid, heaven forbid!’ answered she sobbing. ‘Seventeen years have I been in the Castle, and during all that time I never had an evil word from old or young! It is just on that account I weep,’ she added with a stifled voice.”
“And where have you been hidden,” interrupted Michael, peevishly, “that you overheard all this? Who set you to listen to us? Say, who told you?”
“My stars,” replied the youth, “it was only chance which led me there at the time! You remember it was about the gloaming, and surely there was nothing strange in my stopping, when I heard weeping and lamenting at such an hour, and looking about me to see what was the matter!”
“What was the matter?” repeated the first. “Nothing was the matter; and you might have spared yourself the trouble!”
“But something will be the matter,” added the youth, “and we will all live to see it. The count is about to leave this place,” he added with some vehemence; “that is the secret, and you can no longer conceal it; for though they are at trouble enough to hide it, it begins to peep out.”
“God forbid!” interrupted Samuel. “Leave the country! And what is to become of the Castle? Is it to be sold by public roup? Perhaps it is already bought by some one. Or do they give it up to their creditors?”
“Their creditors!” exclaimed Natango, clasping his emaciated hands together, “Good God, child, who are they who would dare to chase the worthy nobleman from his paternal inheritance?”
“Why,” replied Samuel, “when the most honest man that breathes is no longer able to pay his debts, he stands just in the same situation as the most dishonest; his character for honesty is forfeited in the eye of the law, which proceeds to deal with him accordingly. The creditors keep strictly to the law; and they have a right to do so.”
Natango shook his head, and shaded his white hairs from his eyes already filled with tears. “The more’s the pity that he who is only unfortunate should so often appear as if he was a cheat. Where is the man who is always able to do what he wishes or has the heart to do? I think we all know how difficult that is! But there are many creditors in the world who act better than Samuel thinks they have a right and ought to do, and who give that indulgence to an honest man which often enables him to weather his misfortunes. Well, well, time is passing onwards, and all may yet grow clearer again!”
“All are not so hopeful,” interrupted the young lad; “and there are few, indeed, who have such a sense of justice as to take the will for the deed. Among us country-people that may do sometimes, and a word spoken before witnesses may be as binding as a lawyer’s paper; but I have been in the army, and I have been quartered in towns, and I know everyone there cares only for himself, and trusts as little to another as he can.”
“Tell me, my good friend,” whispered Samuel, who by this time had edged near to Michael, “is the estate to be sold by public roup? Did you hear any talk of this in the town; and is the day fixed?”
“Curse on your tongue!” roared Michael. “If I hear such a word drop from your ugly—Sold by public roup! And are we, think you, all to go into the bargain? Is it so? No, it is not so! It cannot be!”
“No! No!” exclaimed several voices at once. “Are not the fields and gardens all flourishing as ever? And does not our lord, the count, look as calm and composed as ever, and not like one whose breast is oppressed by care as by a millstone? The count knows well where to steer his ship!”
“A prudent helmsman,” resumed Samuel, “never allows his brows to darken, or his eye to flinch, though he may see the vessel running right against the rock; he wears a good heart in his face at least, till all is lost, and neither prudence nor firmness can any longer conceal the worst. Why, I knew long ago,” added he, with a cunning look, “that it would come to this. The ground was loose—the building could not stand. Where there is no foundation, there is no stability.”
“No foundation!” exclaimed Michael angrily; “You fool, the ground about here affords the best foundation of any along the whole beach. That is not the reason.”
“You do not understand me,” said Samuel. “The father had got himself involved; the son succeeded to his estate; war, bad times, want of money—in short, if you can count your fingers you may be at little loss to reckon how matters must now stand up yonder.”
These last words had been addressed to deaf ears. All sat silent and sore grieved at heart for a few minutes, and then slipped out one after another from the tavern. They felt themselves overshadowed by the same black cloud which seemed to darken the count’s fortunes, and many an anxious interrogatory was addressed to Michael, who had not chosen to speak his mind freely before the cunning old man, and now bitterly upbraided the youth for the imprudent exposure he had made of the count’s situation.
However, most persuaded themselves that all would yet be as they wished it, and others consoled themselves with the hope that the dreaded moment was yet far distant. Only Michael and Natango continued to cast anxious looks on the blooming gardens and glittering windows of the Castle. They saw the vines winding richly around their props, and the rose-bushes glittering with fragrancy, but they both felt that all was not right and as they could have wished it.
“It is impossible,” said the old man, still lingering at the gate of the garden, and casting a melancholy look on the countess and her children, who passed near to him among the bushes. “It is impossible! They cannot intend to leave all this!”
“They must—I say they must,” replied Michael, shaking his head, and f moving off to another road.
Natango felt the painfulness of that little word must. He leant against a willow, and revolved in his mind all the vicissitudes he had experienced himself, and his country’s history had exhibited since the Seven Years’ War.
At the period of the count’s birth, Natango was a servant in the Castle, and had been sent in great haste with a sledge for the physician who resided in the neighboring village. He remembered freshly the bustle and anxiety of that night, and the joy which the appearance of a son and heir occasioned in the parents’ hearts. The young count went abroad in early life, but remained the only child of his father, and his return was anxiously prayed for by the tenantry, who found it difficult to deal with the old count now in his dotage. Before his return, however, the war had broken out, and its events brought with them serious injury to his paternal inheritance. At its close, the count, who served in the army, hastened home, and by his industry and good management soon restored his fortunes; at least, he was never heard to complain, and every one believed him happy and contented.
These and a crowd of associated recollections now passed like a dream through the mind of the old domestic. “And shall all this,” he cried, “be forgotten as if it had never been?”
At this moment, the youngest child of the count, a boy of about nine years of age, darted past Natango, like an arrow, upon his little Lithuanian pony. He wore the dress of a Cossack; his little cap with its long calpack descended on one side over his luxuriant locks; in his hand he couched, as if for the attack, a light lance of elder-wood, fashioned by his own ingenuity; and with a loud hurrah he charged upon his elder brother, who appeared descending the hill with a letter in his hand, with which he hastened towards his parents, now at a little distance.
Natango knew not what passed betwixt the count and countess, for they spoke in a foreign language; but he saw the countess frequently cast her looks pensively on the ground, and it seemed to him as if she was endeavoring to soothe the agitated feelings of her husband. A lovely little girl held the skirts of her father’s coat, and sought to engage his attention by her innocent prattle; and at a little distance the eldest daughter, Louisa, walked dejectedly with her beautiful eyes filled with tears, as she ever and anon raised them from the ground, and looked up to the trees and battlements of the Castle.
The count took the letter, and hastily breaking the seal, exclaimed with emotion, “After tomorrow then!” and stepped aside into an adjoining alley to conceal his feelings. The countess anxiously repeated the words, “After tomorrow then!” and she then severally embraced her children, who came pressing around her.
Read the rest of this Antique German Story in Translation in its entirety here!