Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

“Your wife, as I understand, has already told you that the Elector of Brandenburg and I, on the third day of the meeting, which we had in Jüterboch, met a gipsy. When the elector, who is of sportive disposition, resolved by a jest to demolish in the sight of the people the fame of this extraordinary woman, whose art had been the subject of unseemly conversation at table, and asked her, on account of the prophecy which she was about to utter, to give him a sign that might be tested that very day, alleging that he could not otherwise believe what she said, were she the Roman sybil herself. The woman, taking a cursory view of us from head to foot, said that the sign would be this: that the great roebuck, which the gardener’s son reared in the park, would meet us in the market where we stood before we left it. You must know that this roebuck, being intended for the Dresden kitchen, was kept under lock and bolt, in a partition fenced round with high laths, and shaded by the oaks of the park. As on account of other smaller game and birds the park and the garden besides were kept carefully closed, it was not easy to see how the animal, in accordance with the strange prediction, would come to the place where we stood. Nevertheless the elector, fearing some trick, and resolved to put to shame all that the woman might say, for the sake of the jest, sent to the castle, with orders that the roebuck should be killed at once, and got ready for the table at an early day. He then turned back to the woman, who had spoken about this matter aloud, and said: ‘Now, what have you to tell me about the future?’ The woman, looking into his hand said: ‘Hail to my lord the elector! Your grace will long reign, the house from which thou descendest will long endure, and thy descendants will become great and glorious, and attain power above all the princes and lords of the world.’ The elector, after a pause, during which he eyed the woman thoughtfully, said half aside, and stepping up to me, that he was almost sorry he had sent a messenger to annihilate the prophecy, and when the money, from the hands of the knights who followed him, poured into the woman’s lap, amid loud huzzas, he asked her, putting his hand in his pocket, and giving a piece of gold, whether the greeting she would give to me had such a silvery sound as his own. The woman, after she had opened a box which stood beside her, had very deliberately put the money in it, arranging it according to description and quantity, and had closed the lid again, held her hand before the sun as if the light annoyed her, and looked at me. When I repeated the question, and said jestingly to the elector, while she examined my hand, ‘It seems that she has nothing very pleasant to tell me,’ she seized her crutch, rose slowly from her stool, and approaching me with hands mysteriously held out, whispered distinctly into my ear, ‘No!’—’So!’ said I, somewhat confused, and I receded a step back from the figure, who with a glance as cold and lifeless as that from eyes of marble, again seated herself on the stool which stood behind her. ‘Pray from what side does danger threaten my house?’ The woman taking up a bit of charcoal and a slip of paper, and crossing her knees, asked me whether she should write it down; and when I, with some confusion, because under the circumstances there was nothing else left to do, answered ‘Yes, do so,’ she replied: ‘Very good, I will write down three things—the name of the last ruler of thy house, the year when he will lose his kingdom, and the name of him who will take it by force of arms.’ Having finished her task in the sight of the whole mob, she fastened together the slip with a wafer, which she moistened with her withered mouth and pressed upon it a leaden ring which she wore upon her middle finger. I was curious beyond expression, as you may easily conceive, to take the slip, but she said: ‘By no means, your highness,’ adding as she turned round and raised one of her crutches, ‘from that man yonder, who with the plumed hat is standing behind all the people on the bench in the entrance of the church, you may get the paper if you choose.’ And at once, while I was standing perfectly speechless with astonishment, and had not rightly made out what she said, she left me, and packing up the box which stood behind her and flinging it over her back, mingled with the surrounding crowd, so that I was unable to see her. It was a great consolation to me at this moment that the knight, whom the elector had sent to the castle, now returned and told him laughing, that the roebuck had been killed and dragged into the kitchen by two hunters before his eyes.

“The elector, merrily putting his arm into mine, with the intention of leading me from the spot, said: ‘Good! the prophecy turns out to be a mere common-place trick, not worth the time and money which it has cost us.’ But how great was our astonishment, when, at the very time he was speaking these words, a cry was raised, and all eyes were turned towards a great butcher’s dog which came running from the castle-court, and which, having seized the roebuck in the kitchen, as good spoil, had borne it off by the nape of the neck, and now dropped it about three paces from us, followed by a troop of servants, male and female. Thus was the woman’s prophecy, which she had uttered as a guarantee for all the rest that she predicted, completely fulfilled, as the roebuck had indeed met us in the marketplace, although it was dead. The lightning which falls from heaven on a winter’s day, cannot strike with more annihilating effect than that which this sight produced on me; and my first attempt, after I had freed myself from the persons about me, was to find out the man with the plumed hat, whom the woman had designated; but although my people were employed for three days uninterruptedly, in seeking information, not one of them was in a condition to give me the slightest intelligence on the subject.”

 

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Kleist (1777-1811) was a German poet, dramatist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He committed suicide together with a close female friend who was terminally ill.

Translated by John Oxenford.