Ludwig Bechstein: “The Unjust Judge”

Excerpt, “As Pretty As Seven and Other Popular German Tales.” Collected by Ludwig Bechstein, with One Hundred Illustrations by Richter:  A Companion to Grimm’s German Popular Stories.  London: 1873.


         Many years ago, there dwelt in a certain city a man of great worldly riches and possessions, but withal such a wicked cheat and usurer, that people wondered the earth did not open under his feet and swallow him up. He was also a magistrate; but his decisions were so unrighteous, that he was always spoken of as the “Unjust Judge.”

One market day, in the early part of the morning, this judge rode out to see a fine vineyard which he possessed; and as he was returning, Death habited as a rich man, met him on the way. The Judge knew not who the stranger was that accosted him, and therefore asked his name and business.

“It were better for you neither to know me nor my business with you,” was Death’s reply.

“Oh, oh!” exclaimed the Judge, “be you who you may, I must know, or you are a lost man; for I am one who has power in this place, and there is no one who will dare to dispute my authority. So, if you do not choose to tell me your name, I shall take your life and forfeit your property.”

“If that be the case,” said the other, smiling grimly, “I will tell you—my name is—Death!”

“Humph!” growled the Judge. “Pray, then, what is your business here?”

“To take whatever is given in real earnest to me this day.”

“Very well,” said the Judge; “but I must be witness that you get neither more nor less than your due.”

“Do not ask to be near me when I take what is given me,” replied Death in a warning voice.

The Judge, however, took no heed of Death’s words. “I must and will be witness,” said he; and then he began to swear. So Death said no more,  except to warn him again that he could not release himself from the bargain which he had made, however much he might wish; and so both took their way to the market-place. The market was thronged with people, and every now and then the Judge and companion, whom nobody knew, were stopped and asked to share a bottle of wine.

The Judge always took a glass; but his companion, well-knowing it was not offered in earnest, refused all that was proffered to him.  By chance, it happened that a woman was driving along a herd of swine, which, like most pigs, would not go as she wanted them, but another way. “I wish Death had you all, skin and hair!” she cried at last in a rage.

“Do you hear that?” said the Judge to his companion.

“Yes,” answered Death; “but that woman does not mean what she says. She would become miserably poor were I to take her swine. I only dare take what is given to me in earnest.”

Soon afterwards they me a woman and her child; and the latter, like the swine, would not go any way but his own. “You naughty boy,” she exclaimed; “I could wish you were dead!”

“Do you hear that?” again asked the Judge; “take the child; is it not given to you in earnest?”

“Oh, no, no!; she would bitterly lament it, were I to take her at her word,” answered Death.

In a little while they met a second woman dragging along a child, who struggled and cried lustily. “You good-for-nothing little vagabond,” she exclaimed; “it would be a happy thing for me to lose you altogether!”

“Now, will you not take even this child?” said the Judge.

“I have no power,” replied his companion; “for this woman would not take fifty, nay, not a hundred pounds for her child, much less would she give it to me.”

They came now to the thickest part of the crowd, and soon they were wedged in, unable to go forward or backward. Just then a woman, old and poor, and suffering under heavy misfortunes, caught sight of the Judge. As soon as she saw him she cried out, “Woe to thee, Judge, woe to thee, that thou art so rich and I am so poor! Without cause, thou hast taken from me the cow which was my only support, forgetful alike of the mercy of God or man. Woe to thee! I would to Heaven that He would now hear my prayer, and send Death to take thee from the world thou hast done so much injustice to!”

The Judge returned no answer to all this; but Death led him away in triumph, saying, “See now, Master Judge, this is in earnest, and this you must be witness to.”

So Death struck him in the midst of the crowd at the feet of the old woman whose cow he had so unjustly taken; and people said,