Schiller: “Criminal From Lost Honour” 2/2

Excerpt, “Tales from the German, Comprising Specimens from the Most Celebrated Authors.” London: 1844. Translator: John Oxenford.


The following part of the history I entirely pass over; the merely detestable has nothing instructive for the reader. An unfortunate man who had sunk to this depth, would at last necessarily allow himself all that raises the indignation of mankind. He did not, however, commit another murder, as he himself confessed upon the rack.

The fame of this man shortly spread over the entire province. The high roads became unsafe; the citizens were rendered uneasy by the burglaries committed in the night. The name of the ” Host of the Sun” became the terror of the country-people. Justice searched for him, and a reward was offered for his head. He was fortunate enough to frustrate all attempts made against his liberty, and cunning enough to turn to the account of his safety the superstition of the wonder-loving peasantry.

His comrades had to spread the report that he had made a compact with the devil, and understood witchcraft. The district in which he played his part, belonged less at that time than now to the enlightened part of Germany. The reports were believed, and his person was secure. No one showed a desire to attack the dangerous fellow who had the devil at his service.

He had already for a year followed his melancholy profession, when it began to grow insupportable. The band at whose head he stood, did not fulfil his brilliant expectations. A seductive exterior had dazzled him amid the fumes of the wine; now he saw with horror how frightfully he had been deceived. Hunger and want took the place of that superfluity by which his senses had been lulled; very often he had to risk his life on a meal, which was scarcely sufficient to keep him from starvation.

The phantom of that brotherly concord vanished; envy, suspicion, and jealousy raged among this abandoned crew. Justice had offered a reward to any one who should deliver him up alive, with a solemn pardon if he were an accomplice–a powerful temptation for the dregs of the earth! The unhappy man knew his peril. The honesty of those who betrayed God and man, was a bad security for his life. From this moment sleep was gone; a deadly and eternal anguish preyed on his repose.

The hideous spectre of suspicion rattled behind him, wherever he fled, tortured him when he was awake, lay down by him when he went to sleep, and scared him with horrible visions. His conscience, which had been for some time dumb, now recovered its speech, and the adder of remorse, which had slept, now awoke amid the general storm of his bosom. All his hatred was now diverted from mankind, and turned its frightful edge against himself.

He now forgave all nature, and found none but himself to execrate. Vice had completed its instruction of this unhappy being; his naturally good sense at last overcame the mournful delusion. Now he felt how low he had fallen, calm melancholy took the place of grinding despair. With tears he wished the past were recalled, for now he felt certain that he could go through it differently.

He began to hope that he might be allowed to become honest, because he felt that he could be so. At the highest point of his depravity, he was perhaps nearer to goodness than before his first fault. About the same time, the Seven Years’ War had broken out, and recruiting was going on with vigour. This circumstance inspired the unhappy man with hope, and he wrote a letter to his sovereign, an extract of which I insert :

“If your princely favour feels no repugnance towards descending to me, if criminals of my class are not beyond the sphere of your mercy, grant me a hearing, I beg of your most serene highness! I am a murderer and a robber; the law condemns me to death, the tribunals are in search of me, and I offer myself to serve as a volunteer.

But at the same time, I bring a singular request before your throne. I detest my life, and do not fear death, but it is terrible for me to die without having lived. I would live to make reparation for a portion of the past, I would live to make some atonement to the state, which I have offended. My execution will be an example to the world, but no compensation for my deeds. I detest vice, and have a burning desire for integrity and virtue. I have shown the talents for becoming formidable to my country. I hope I have some left to be of service to it.

I know that I am asking something which is unprecedented. My life is forfeit, and it is not for me to negotiate with justice. But I do not appear in bonds and fetters before you. I am still free and fear on my part has the smallest share in my request. It is for mercy that I ask. If I had a claim to justice, I should no longer venture to assert it. But of one thing I may remind my judge. The epoch of my crimes begins with the judgment that forever deprived me of honour.

Had fairness been less denied me on that occasion, I should not now, perhaps, have stood in need of mercy.

Show mercy, my prince, instead of justice. If it is in your princely power to move the law in my favour, then grant me my life. From henceforth it shall be devoted to your service. If you can do so, let me learn your gracious will from the public journals, and I will appear in the metropolis on your word as a prince.

If you have resolved otherwise, let justice do her part, I must do mine.”

This petition remained unanswered, and so did a second, and a third, in which the applicant asked for a trooper’s place in the prince’s service. His hopes for a pardon were utterly extinguished, so he resolved to quit the country, and to die as a brave soldier in the service of the King of Prussia.

He succeeded in escaping from his land, and began his journey. The road led him through a little provincial town, where he wished to pass the night. A short time before, mandates of exceeding strictness had been published throughout the country, requiring a severe examination of travellers, because the sovereign, a prince of the empire, had taken part in the war.

The toll-collector ( Thorschreiber) of this little town had just received a mandate, and he was sitting on a bench before the toll-bar, when the “Host of the Sun” came up. The appearance of this man had in it something comical, and at the same time wild and terrible.

The lean pony which he rode, and the grotesque choice of his attire, in which his taste had probably been less consulted than the chronology of his thefts, contrasted singularly enough with a face over which so many raging passions were spread, like mangled corpses on a field of battle.

The collector was struck by the sight of this strange wanderer. He had grown grey at the toll-bar, and by attending to his office for forty years had become an infallible physiognomist of all the vagabonds about. The falcon-glance of this investigator did not miss its man on this occasion. He at once fastened the town-gate, and asked the rider for his passport while he secured his bridle.

Wolf was prepared for chances of this kind, and actually had with him a passport, which he had taken shortly before while plundering a merchant. This single voucher, however, did not suffice to counteract the observation of forty years, and to move the oracle of the toll-bar to a recantation. He trusted his eyes more than the paper, and Wolf was obliged to follow him to the office of the bailiff.

The superior of the office examined the passport and declared it correct. He was an ardent lover of news, and it was his delight to chatter over the newspaper by his bottle. The passport told him that the bearer had come straight from those foreign countries, where the theatre of the war was situated. He hoped to get private intelligence from the stranger, and sent back a secretary with the passport to invite him to partake of a bottle of wine.

In the meanwhile the “Host of the Sun” was standing in front of the office, and the whimsical spectacle had assembled the rabble of the town in throngs. The people whispered into one another’s ears, pointed at the horse and rider, till at last the insolence of the mob increased to a loud tumult. The horse, at which every one pointed, was unluckily a stolen one, and Wolf fancied that it had been described in placards and was recognised. The unexpected hospitality of the superior confirmed his suspicion.

He now considered it certain that the falsity of his passport was discovered, and that the invitation was only a snare to catch him alive and without resistance. His bad conscience besotted him, so he clapped spurs to his horse and rode off without giving a reply. This sudden flight was the signal for an uproar.

“A thief!” cried all; and off they flew after him. To the rider it was a matter of life and death; he had already the start, his followers panted breathlessly, and he seemed to be on the point of escape. But a heavy hand pressed invisibly towards him, the watch of his destiny had run down, the inexorable Nemesis detained her debtor. The street to which he trusted had no outlet, and he was forced to turn back towards his persecutors.

The noise of this event had in the meanwhile set the whole town in an uproar; throng pressed on throng, all the streets were lined, and a host of enemies were marching towards him. He showed a pistol, the mob receded, and he would have made a way through the crowd by force. “A shot from this,” said he, “for the mad fool who detains me!”

A general pause was dictated by fear, when at last, a bold journeyman blacksmith darted on his arm from behind, caught the finger with which the insane man was about to fire, and forced it out of joint. The pistol fell, the disarmed man was pulled from his horse, and dragged to the office in triumph.

“Who are you?” asked the judge in a somewhat brutal tone.

“A man who is resolved to answer no question until it is put more courteously.”

“Who are you?”

“That which I represented myself to be. I have travelled all through Germany, and never found impudence at home, anywhere but here.”

“Your speedy flight renders you very suspicious. Why did you run?”

“Because I was tired of being the laughing-stock of your rabble.”

“You threatened to fire.”

“My pistol was not loaded.”

The weapon was examined, and, true enough, it contained no bullet.

“Why did you secretly carry arms?”

“Because I have with me articles of value, and because I have been warned against a certain ‘Host of the Sun,’ who is said to be roving about these parts.”

“Your replies argue much for your audacity, but little for the goodness of your cause. I will give you till to-morrow to discover the truth to me.”

“I shall abide by what I have already said.”

“Let him be conducted to the tower.”

“To the tower? I hope, Herr Superior, that there is still justice in this country. I shall require satisfaction.”

“I will give it you as soon as you are acquitted.”

The next morning the superior reflected that the stranger might be innocent after all ; a dictatorial address could effect nothing with his obstinacy, and it might, perhaps, be better to treat him with respect and moderation. He collected the jury of the place, and had the prisoner brought forward.

“Forgive me for the first outbreak, sir, if I accosted you somewhat hardly yesterday.”

“Very readily, if you treat me thus.”

“Our laws are severe, and your affair made a noise. I cannot release you without committing a breach of duty. Appearance is against you, and I wish you would say something, by which it might be refuted.”

“What, if I know nothing?”

“Then I must lay the case before the government, and you will, in the meanwhile, remain closely confined.”

“And then?”

“Then you run the risk of being flogged over the border as a vagrant, or, if mercy is shown, of being placed among the recruits.”

He was silent for some minutes, and appeared to be undergoing a severe contest, then he suddenly turned to the judge.

“Can I be alone with you for a quarter of an hour?”

The jury cast ambiguous glances at one another, but withdrew at a commanding sign from their head.

“Now, what do you want?”

“Your demeanour of yesterday, Herr Superior, would never have brought me to a confession, for I set force at defiance. The moderation with which you have treated me to-day has given me confidence and respect for you. I think that you are an honourable man.”

“What have you to say to me?”

“I see that you are an honourable man; I have long wished for a man like you. Give me, I pray, your right hand.”

“To what end?”

“That head is gray and reverend. You have been long in the world, have felt many sorrows is it not so? And have become more humane.”

“Sir, to what does this tend?”

“You are now distant by only one step from eternity soon, soon will you need mercy from God. You will not deny it to man. Do you suspect nothing? With whom do you suppose you are speaking?”

“What do you mean? You terrify me.”

“If you do not already suspect write to your prince how you found me, and that I myself of my free choice was my own betrayer –that God will be merciful unto him as he now shows mercy unto me. Entreat for me, old man, and then let a tear fall on your report.

I am Host of the Sun.”