Elsi, the unusual Farm Maid

Jeremias Gotthelf
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Switzerland is so bountifully blessed with beautiful valleys that no one could possibly name them all. No schoolbook even offers a complete list. One of the richest, if not one of the most beautiful, is the valley in which Heimiswyl lies and which empties into the right bank of the Bernese Emme above the town of Burgdorf. The mountains surrounding the valley are neither especially tall nor unusually shaped. They are simply mighty Emmental hills, bright green at the base and dark green at the top, circled by meadows and farm land below and covered with tall pines above. The valley, which juts up against a larger valley in the northwest, does not offer an extended view into the distance. The Alps, therefore, can be seen only from the two summits which dominate the valley, yet from these vantage points they show themselves in all their brilliant splendor against the southern sky. The water which flows from the rocks is marvelous, the lush meadows are unexcelled, and the soil is ideally suited for any kind of crop. The valley is rich and beautiful and the houses adorning it are charming. Anyone wishing to feast his eyes on the famous Emmental farmhouses will find a large number of excellent specimens in this valley.

In one of these stately farmhouses lived in the year 1796 a farm maid called Elsi Schindler, although that apparently was not her real name. She was a strange girl and no one knew who she was nor where she was from. Late one spring evening there had been a knock at the door and when the farmer looked out, he saw a tall girl with a bundle under her arm standing outside. She asked if she could spend the night, as was in keeping with the long established custom that any penniless traveler, or anyone else who wanted to avoid staying at an inn, could ask to spend the night at a farmhouse. That person would then not only receive free lodging, either in the barn with the animals or in a warm bed, but would also be served supper and breakfast and perhaps even be given a penny or two for the road. There are farmhouses in the Canton of Bern which daily show such hospitality as would rival that of the Orient and which seldom see a night go by without an overnight guest in the house.

The farmer told the girl to come in and, since they were eating supper, asked her to join them. At a word from the farmer's wife, the womenfolk squeezed together on the bench and the overnighter, as such guests are called, was asked to sit down with them at the further end. They continued eating, but for a few minutes there was little conversation, for everyone felt compelled to look at the girl. She was not only tall and well-built, but had a pretty face too. Her face was tanned, yet it had regular features and was rather large, with big, sad eyes and a small mouth showing white teeth. There was something strange in her manner, which was especially striking in an overnighter, so that the folks at the table couldn't get their fill of looking at her. There was an undeniable air of nobility about the girl which could not have been falsely assumed. It seemed to them that she sat there at the end of the bench as if she were the master's daughter, or at any rate someone who was used to giving orders and running things.

Thus they were all surprised when, after the farmer got around to asking, "Where are you from and where are you headed?" she replied that she was a poor girl whose parents had died and that she was going down to the villages to look for work as a maid. This statement led to a good many more questions, for everyone found her story hard to believe. And they were all the more amazed when the farmer said, more to test her out than in earnest, "If you're serious, you can stay here; I happen to need a maid just now," and the girl answered that would suit her just fine. Then she wouldn't have to run around looking any farther, she added. None of the people there could believe that the girl actually wanted to be a maid.

And yet that's how it really was and the girl was dead serious, although it's true that she wasn't born to that station in life. She was the daughter of a rich miller from a good, long-established line, from one of those families of which folks used to say, back when money wasn't put out at interest, that at inheritances and at estate divisions their money was not counted but rather measured out with a scoop. But in the last half of the previous century a boundless pride and arrogance had crept into the family and many of them had become as wanton as the prodigal son. That was back when rich farmers' sons competed with one another to see who could throw talers farthest across the Emme River. It was back when a rich farmer, who had twelve mares grazing in his field, had a proclamation cried out at a crowded market: whoever wanted to be the Boldhouse Farmer's guest for dinner should be at the Stag Inn at twelve noon. The girl's father had been just such a man. Here he would treat a whole roomful of people to food and drink, there he would thrash all the guests at an inn, drive them away and then on the following morning be obliged to pay damages and smart money to a dozen or more. He was capable of going through some two hundred talers at a single militia training session or of throwing away just as much at market. When on occasion he settled down at a tavern in all seriousness, he would sit there for a week at a time and anyone who came would have to join the rich miller in a drink or be thrashed for refusing. One can exhaust a gold mine in this way and the miller gradually became poor, despite his poor wife's valiant efforts to stave off poverty and to hold things together.

She saw the end coming far in advance, yet out of false pride hid how things really stood from neighbors. Her relatives had been against her marriage, for she was of a good family who viewed with disdain the wanton behavior of the miller. She had held firm, hoping that the miller would reform, but this hope had been dashed--as is so many a poor bride's--and things had gotten worse instead of better. She therefore could not now go complaining to others. Although folks wondered about how long the miller could keep up his way of life, no one perceived the real state of affairs until the poor wife, her heart eaten up with grief, bowed her head and died. Now there was no one there to keep everything in order and to hide their troubles. They soon ran short of cash, and when that occurs, the creditors come running, one after another, like vultures descending on a carcass, for none wants to be last. An endless series of debts came to light and bankruptcy was declared. The family lost everything they had. The rich miller turned into a penniless beggar and had to go from house to house for many a year, for Go. granted him a long life. For a rich man to become a poor vagabond and to, have to go begging the rest of his life is just punishment for someone, who has caused his family shame and infamy and has robbed them of more than just worldly goods. Such a man is also a living example for wanton youth to learn where reckless behavior usually leads.

The miller had two sons who had earlier sought refuge from their father's brutality by joining a foreign army. There was only one daughter who was the prettiest but also the proudest miller's daughter far and wide. She had scarcely taken part in the usual pleasures and occupations of youth. Such things simply did not appeal to her, though everyone said it was her pride that prevented her from joining in. She had been pursued by droves of suitors, but each had pleased her less than his predecessor. Not a one had received a word of encouragement. As a consequence, every one of them became her personal enemy and decried her haughtiness.

There was, however, one area where her pride did not stand in the way, namely in working and in giving a helping hand to man or beast in need. From an early age she had gotten up before dawn and had done every kind of work and done it well. Often her parents had tried to hold her back, forbidding her to do this or that chore because they thought such work inappropriate for a rich miller's daughter. Then she would simply do her work secretly. And when her ailing mother would wake up in the night she would often see her daughter sitting by her bed, although her mother had told a maid to sit up with her and had ordered her daughter to go to bed.

Then when her mother died and the family's troubles began, it was as if lightning had struck. The daughter didn't weep or complain, but seemed to have been struck dumb. Folks shuddered to see her, for she was often spotted standing on a high cliff, on the edge of deep water, or up next to the millstones in the stream. Everyone said that there would surely be a tragedy, yet no one tried to prevent it in any way. Everyone thought and many said out loud that it would serve Elsi right, for pride came before the fall and the same thing should happen to all those who acted as proud as Elsi. When she disappeared the morning on which the bankruptcy inventory was to be taken, everyone said: there you had it; they had said long ago that it would come to this end. She was sought in all the streams and among the pines and when she was nowhere to be found, a few folks hinted that there was a certain someone who came and took people away, especially proud and haughty folk. And for many years afterwards proud girls were told that there was a certain someone who liked proud folk best of all and that they should remember the rich miller's daughter who had disappeared so completely that neither hide nor hair of her was seen again.

Nothing so bad, however, had happened to Elsi, although she did have such thoughts in the very first days after the bankruptcy. It seemed to her as if her heart were being torn in two and as if millstone after millstone were being piled on top of her soul. There was an anger and a shame in her which burnt as if she had been in the middle of hell. She could see that everyone gloated over her misfortune and even if she had been offered all the riches of the earth, she would not have been capable of giving a single human being a friendly greeting.

A higher hand, however, was watching over the poor child and saw to it that strength grew out of her pride, a strength which helped Elsi reach a nobler decision. In this way God often causes the sweetest fruit to grow out of the seed which men have scorned. The girl's pride was actually an in-born disgust of everything low or degrading. Anyone who had once seen her pray would have seen how she could humble herself before that which is in no way low or degrading. But she didn't understand her feelings and wasn't able to control their outward expression; thus she acted like a rich miller's daughter for whom no one in the world was good enough. After the bankruptcy she wanted to get away but recoiled at the thought of suicide. She didn't want to have that infamy hanging over her family and didn't want to destroy her soul along with her body, yet for a long time she could think of no other way out.

Then, in the still of night, just when she was seeking an answer most anxiously, God revealed it to her. She would go far away and in some out-of-the-way place look for a position as a common farm maid. There, her real identity unknown, she would pass her days in tranquility and devoted service as long as God granted her life. When strong-willed folk see what needs to be done, they just go ahead and do it. So Elsi set off that same night, leaving behind all her fancy trappings and taking only what was suitable for a maid. She didn't say a word to anyone and, taking lonely byways, she left her native valley. For many a day she went this way and that; one place she'd not like the looks of, another place she'd reject because there were people there who knew her. And so she came to the Heimiswyl Valley. There, hidden away in that pleasant valley, she felt comfortable and so sought and found work.

The farmer's wife did not at first like the fact that Elsi had been taken on so suddenly. She upbraided her husband for saddling her with so dainty a maid who would probably be too haughty to take orders. The farmer placated her with the assurance that the girl had not, after all, been hired for a specific length of time but could be sent away if she didn't work out. Nor was the hiring of the girl to the liking of the other hired help. For a long while they circled around Elsi like chickens around a strange bird sitting in their farmyard.

But soon the mistress recognized that in Elsi she possessed a jewel such as she had never had before and one whose value cannot be measured in terms of money alone. Not only did Elsi do her chores faultlessly, she also thought on her own about what needed to be done and did it quickly without having to be told. When the mistress looked around to see what needed to be done, everything had already been done as if by magic, as if elves had been at work. Now it is indescribably delightful to a farmer's wife when she doesn't have to think of everything herself and be constantly looking after this or that, but instead can delegate the thinking as well as the working. But one can seldom find a maid to whom such responsibility can be given. Many people seem born incapable of this kind of thinking whereas others always have an alert mind, guided and watched over by an ability to think and reason clearly. And out of these few, there are fewer still who become hired help or who work for long in that capacity, for such people are born masters.

Elsi also wasn't a chatterbox and didn't have dealings with anyone outside the house, so that what she saw or heard she kept to herself. No neighboring woman heard the least bit of gossip from her, no matter how the woman tried. She was not on familiar terms with the other hired help. She had received the farm hands' crude jokes in a way which prevented them from ever trying them on her again, for Elsi possessed a strength such is seldom seen among women. Yet the farm hands did not dislike her. She didn't report anyone's doings to the farmer or his wife, and whenever she could do a farm hand or maid a service, she would spare no effort to do it. Often she would silently do the work which someone had forgotten and for which, if the farmer or his wife had seen it, that person would have been severely rebuked.

In this way Elsi became the right arm of the farm mistress, who when her heart was heavy, went to Elsi to unburden it. But she took it amiss that Elsi did not return her confidence. She was of course curious about who Elsi was and where she was from, for she could easily see, especially from Elsi's habit of thinking for herself and doing things unbidden, that she hadn't been a maid all her life, but had been used to giving orders. She therefore made many a pointed hint and finally asked Elsi outright. Elsi sighed but said nothing and stood her ground although the farm mistress tried her best to wheedle it out of her, using every tactic known to women, from tenderness to stinging mockery. Nowadays the mistress could have simply asked to see her papers and in particular her birth certificate, which one must produce or be in violation of the law. Back then no one thought of such a thing, so that a person in the Canton of Bern could have remained incognito his whole life long unless he did something to attract the attention of the police.

As much as this upset the woman, it did not destroy her confidence in Elsi. Whenever she could not go herself to the Burgdorf Market on a Thursday, for the Heimiswyl women even back then went there every Thursday, she would send Elsi with whatever there was to sell and with orders to buy what was needed. And Elsi carried everything out very faithfully and was home before she was missed, for she never went into an inn, either on market days or on Sundays, no matter how much folks, both young and old, tried to coax her. At first everyone thought her refusal was just the usual coyness and they tried to push, pull and badger her in, as was the local custom. But it was all to no avail; Elsi firmly refused to go. Folks were astonished at this, for no one had ever heard of such a girl, who would not let herself be persuaded into an inn for a glass of wine. In the end they gave up their attempts and gained respect for her.

Once the menfolk gain respect for a pretty girl, she will by and by be free from the attention of those who consider girls flowers with whom they can do as they please. But then those fellows come running who are in earnest and who want a proper as well as a pretty wife. At that time there were many such men in the Heimiswyl Valley. They were all of the opinion that they would not find a wife in the Valley to suit them. Of course, a majority of them wanted not only a pretty and proper wife, but a rich one, too. Yet it's well known how it is with young people, that they change their way of calculating daily and give the highest rating to whatever they happen to find in that girl most to their liking at that moment. Therefore Elsi was more in danger of attracting their attention with each passing day. They talked to her on the way to church and on the way to market. At night they knocked on her bedroom window, talking nonsense, and when they were through with what they had to say, they started over again from the beginning. But it was all in vain. Elsi would answer them on the highway in a friendly way but would not have anything to do with the ones who came to her window. And when, as happens often enough in the Canton of Bern, her window was smashed in or the outside door to her room knocked down, it did not help her would-be lovers in the least. She would either put up a staunch resistance and chase the intruder out of her room or would climb through the stove pipe down into the room below, where no window-climbing suitor would follow.

Among those who were looking for a pretty and proper wife was a farmer who was no longer altogether young. No girl had thus far seemed pretty and proper enough to suit him and even when he thought he had found one, all the girl needed to do was to have a friendly chat with another lad and he was through with her and wouldn't look at her again. The farmer's name was Christen. He had inherited a splendid farm from his mother while his father worked another farm with his second wife and numerous children. Christen was handsome and proud. There was no more handsome gunner to be seen at militia training, no more hard-working farmer at work and no more courageous man in a fight. Yet he had gradually withdrawn from the world and its strife. He no longer took an interest in girls, who were the chief source of discord back then--now it's money--for he did not believe any were capable of being faithful. At an inn a fight could be raging all around him with glasses shattering next to him and chair legs breaking and he would not budge from behind his glass of wine. Only occasionally at the Burgdorf Market when the Heimiswylers were engaged in battle with their archenemies, the Krauchthalers, would Christen bestir himself. And then it was not until message after message came entreating him for Heaven's sake to come that he would stand up and with a few mighty blows help his besieged comrades regain the upper hand.

As beseems a young farmer, Christen had never had any dealings with farm maids. Yet Elsi had something so different about her that she was not considered a maid; everyone agreed that she was not just someone off the street. Just for that reason, folks tried all the more to find out where she was from, but in vain. That no one was able to discover her identity was partly chance and partly due to the fact that travel back then was still very limited and towns which lay ten hours apart were less known to one another than those nowadays which are separated by a distance five times as great. As is always the case with mysteries, tall tales about Elsi's past sprang up and the women of the area passed around many a rumor about her. Some folks made her out to be an escaped criminal; others said she was a wife who had run away from her husband; another group took her for a farmer's daughter who was fleeing from a forced marriage; and still others claimed she was an illegitimate sister of the farmer's wife or the farmer's illegitimate daughter who was being smuggled into the house under the guise of a maid. But since Elsi steadfastly continued in her quiet ways, almost like a star in the firmament, all these rumors were eventually discounted. The secretive, unusual aura about her remained, and it was this which attracted the young men and especially Christen. His farm was not far from that of Elsi's master and in fact their land almost touched, so that when Christen went down into the Valley, he had to pass by the other farmer's house. At first he behaved very matter-of-factly towards Elsi. When he chanced to meet her, he spoke to her and would perhaps go join her under the broad roof of the well as she was washing potatoes or doing some other chore there. Elsi answered him in a friendly way, one word would lead to another and they often ended up talking together a good long while, which was something other folks noticed more than they did themselves.

Christen, too, wanted to treat Elsi to a glass of wine when he met her in Burgdorf or when they passed the Heimiswyl Inn on their way home. Yet Elsi would no more go with him into an inn than she would with anyone else. At first that made Christen bitterly angry. He was of the opinion that it was an honor for a maid to have a young farmer offer her a glass of wine and that it reflected poorly on her to refuse. When he saw, however, that she acted the same towards all the other lads, and heard that she had yet to enter an inn since she had been there, he began to like her for it and, indeed, his feelings grew stronger as time went by. There was a girl, he thought, who could be true and wouldn't go flirting with every fool in pants and wouldn't go anywhere with anybody just to get a free meal. The fellow who had someone like her as a wife could send her to church or to market or leave her at home all alone without having to worry that someone else would come and take his place. And yet, whenever he met Elsi somewhere he couldn't resist inviting her to have wine with him or telling her that the following Sunday he was going to such and such a place and that she could come along. And every time he was angry that she refused.

It's a funny thing with menfolk and womenfolk. As long as they are single and are just courting or engaged, women are as charming as it is possible to be and men are so generous that it makes your head spin. And this is as true in the city as it is in the country. A single lad, for example, will order up a roast or at least a cake and, even if it means selling a pound of his own flesh to do it, will order red wine to go with it or even, as is often the case today, French champagne. It seems he can't treat his girl to wine often enough. He acts as if he were as rich as a king and as if his father could hardly find a place to sit down at home amongst all the bags of money. Once such a fellow is married, however, this magnanimity comes to an end and the more generous he has been up until then, the tighter he becomes afterwards. Whenever his wife wants to accompany him to an inn, there is a battle and when his wife, perhaps once a year, emerges victorious, her husband will needle her over it for the next seven years. The same is true of a girl's charm once she is married. Both character traits go the way of all flesh, as they say, although it's difficult to decide if it's first the husband who gives up his generosity or his wife who loses her charm. It must just be the same as with the ham that's used to catch mice. Once the mouse is caught and the ham eaten, no new ham grows back where the old has disappeared.

It is apparently for the same reason that fellows put out ham for mice that the majority of fathers in the city promise their daughters' suitors a bag of money, although it is often never delivered. In the country folks aren't so advanced and particularly weren't at that time in Heimiswyl.

In spite of his anger, Christen began to like Elsi more and more, and the conviction began to establish itself firmly in his mind that it was she he wanted as a wife or no wife at all. He took many a walk on her account and often visited with her master in the evening. And he was more and more often to be found outside her window at night. Elsi, however, never let him in and each time Christen vowed that he would never return. Yet he could not keep to this resolution. When she heard his voice, Elsi would come to the window and talk to him, but that was all. The sweeter he talked, the quieter she became; when he talked of marriage she would end the conversation; and when he confided in her and talked of his prospects in life and asked about hers, she would shut the window. Then Christen would become angry. He did not suspect what a struggle was going on inside Elsi.

At first Elsi had enjoyed living in the Valley, being alone and not having to put up with her father. Yet gradually the solitude itself began to oppress her, which goes to show that man must always have some burden to bear. Not to have anyone in all the world in whom one can confide and on whom one can rely in time of need is a sorrow which causes many a heart to bleed. When Christen became friendly with Elsi, it greatly warmed her heart. Christen offered a way back into her old position in life, a possibility of going from farm maid to mistress. Yet in order to marry she would have to say who she was and where she was from. And she would have to tell the people from her native village where she had gone. These were things she just could not do. She was certain that Christen would lose interest in her once he learned who she was, and that was something she felt she could not bear. She knew too well what kind of reputation her father had up and down the countryside and that folks in the Valley would far rather have the daughter of some penniless fellow than the daughter of a family whose shame was on everyone's lips. How many a poor girl rejoices over a rich husband for her parents' sake because she hopes to be able to bring some sunshine into their dark lives when they are old. This is a joy the daughter of ignoble parents does not share, for she brings nothing but shame into her new family. She can help her wayward parents overcome neither their shame nor their vices. Elsi knew that her father was beyond help. Giving him money was like pouring oil on a fire; having him live with her would not have been possible and certainly she could not demand such a thing of her husband. That is the curse which hovers over such parents, that they become the poison of their children's lives. Their bad name remains, like a ghost, when they themselves have long been rotting in their graves; it hangs on to their children's coattails and appears as a messenger of doom whenever happiness and better days seem to be within reach.

The poor girl underwent a terrible struggle in her heart, but she simply could not reveal her secret. If Christen had ever seen how this struggle forced tears from Elsi's eyes and how she sighed and prayed, he would not have been so angry but would have increased his love and attention so much that he would perhaps have discovered the secret. But what goes on inside of us God has with good reason hidden from view. Elsi often wanted to leave in the dead of night and disappear again as she had done in her old village. Yet she couldn't do it. She told herself that the people there would speak badly of her and say she had run off like a thief in the night or something still worse. Yet it was something else which kept her there, something which she wouldn't admit to herself. The girl suffered terribly; happiness was so near yet a specter was there keeping her from it for all eternity. No one else saw this specter and, since she couldn't cry out for help, she had to put up with bitter reproaches from people who thought she was throwing away her chance at happiness out of arrogance and haughtiness.

Christen was not alone in reproaching Elsi. Her mistress did too, for she saw Christen's love and did not, unlike many a farmer's wife, begrudge her maid such happiness, for Elsi was as dear to her as a sister. On such occasions she could become quite bitter over Elsi's lack of trust and, indeed, could sometimes not help hinting that Elsi must have something terrible to hide if she would not even confide it to her mistress, who only wished her happiness. This made Elsi bitterly unhappy and she looked wretched. Yet she could not leave, nor could she chase away the specter which stood between her and happiness.

Then it happened that her mistress took Elsi along to Burgdorf on old New Year's Day. This is the day on which the new year fell according to the old Russian calendar and which, like old Christmas Day, used to be celebrated widely in the rural areas, although now it is observed only in certain mountain districts. The day fell on a market day, so that all the more people were there. The young people amused themselves merrily while the older folk talked about the French, who, it was rumored, had thoughts of invading Switzerland. But if they did, folks said, the Swiss would give them a thrashing till they cried out for mercy. With great caution a few folks muttered something about liberty and equality and the strict rule of the Bernese patricians. They did well to say such things with caution, since for folks from the mountains a Frenchman and the Devil were pretty much one and the same.

When the farm mistress had completed her business, she steered towards her favorite inn, for she was not about to leave Burgdorf, especially on old New Year's, without having something to eat and drink. She wanted to take Elsi along, but Elsi did not want to go. She excused herself, saying that she didn't need anything and added that if both of them went, they wouldn't be able to stay long since no one was home to look after things. She would just go on home by herself, Elsi said, for then her mistress could stay as long as she wanted and could then find company for the trip home or perhaps even a ride.

As they stood there talking, Christen came up and, taking the side of the farmer's wife, told Elsi that she would just have to come along this time. It would be awfully strange, he said, if a girl like her refused to enter an inn; she would be the first to do such a thing. Elsi stood by her decision and refused politely, saying she didn't care for wine and that no one was home to keep an eye on things. She had to come, Christen said; she could drink as little as she wanted and leave whenever she pleased, but he just wanted to see once and for all if she were ashamed to be seen with him or not.

That was unreasonable, Elsi said; he knew very well that a poor maid would not be ashamed to be seen with a farmer. He shouldn't be angry, but she had always refused to let herself be swayed by flattery or vanity and was in the habit of thinking before she opened her mouth and then keeping to what she had said. The good farmer's wife, who did not understand any other motives than wanting to go or not wanting to go, helped Christen coax her and said that such behavior was very strange and that when she was young, she would have been ashamed to have refused an offer from a handsome, well-behaved lad and, indeed, would never have inflicted such embarrassment on a lad.

There is nothing which kindles a person's anger and strengthens his resolve more than such seconding of his viewpoint. Christen, therefore, pressed Elsi all the more and wanted to drag her bodily into the inn. Elsi, however, stood firm.

At that Christen said in anger,"Well, you know best what reasons you have for always refusing. But if you won't go, there are plenty of others who will."

With that he let go of Elsi and latched onto another Heimiswyl girl who happened to be walking by and who willingly accompanied Christen into the inn. The farm mistress gave Elsi an angry look, said, "Now see what you've done," and followed after them. Elsi stood there feeling that her heart was about to break. Her anger over what Christen had said and her jealousy towards the other girl almost accomplished what love could not, and she was on the point of following after Christen. She restrained herself, however; she had a great aversion to inns, for it was there that her family's honor and happiness had been ruined. She avoided them, too, because she ran the greatest danger there of being recognized or of having to hear some story about her father. At inns folks flock together and take time to look each other over and place faces, something which is not possible in a brief encounter on the road.

As she went home, her heart felt heavier than it had since the days of her family's ruination. At first she could hardly keep from crying but struggled to keep back the tears because of what folks would think. Then a dark, bitter resentment began to fill her breast. So this was how it was to be with her: not only was she never to be happy, but she was to be hounded and suspected on top of it all; and she had to put up with it, since she couldn't explain herself. That was how the people treated her from whom she deserved it least, the very ones who should have known her best. Just as in the olden days the mountains were said to have grown out of the earth in the throes of a mighty revolution, so did the decision grow out of the sorrows of Elsi's heart to withdraw more and more from contact with others, to have nothing more to do with anyone, to speak only when she was spoken to, and to leave the Valley, where everyone was against her, as soon as she could.

When the farm mistress arrived, she unwittingly strengthened Elsi's resolve. She had meant to do just the opposite, yet not everyone is accurate in his calculations, not only with numbers, but also with words. She told Elsi how Christen was amusing himself in Burgdorf and would surely accompany the girl home and how no one could tell what would happen then, for the girl was pretty, rich and clever enough to catch a bird in a trap. That would serve Elsi right and she would deserve it, for that was no way for a maid to behave towards a farmer. But she was starting to think that there was something suspicious in her refusal, for she couldn't understand it otherwise. If there weren't, then Elsi should say so. Elsi's only answer to this was sullen silence.

Elsi went to bed in stubborn silence and was in the same frame of mind when she awoke upon hearing a knocking at her window and then Christen's voice. Christen hadn't had the heart to see a new day dawn over his quarrel with Elsi. The wine he had drunk had just made him see things clearer, and the more the wine had gained control over him on the way home, the more he had been drawn to Elsi in order to make up with her. He had stopped at the Heimiswyl Inn with the girl, but only in order to free himself from her gracefully. He had ordered half a bottle of wine and something to eat, had left under some pretense, paid his bill and not reappeared. The girl was, as we said, not one of the slow ones; she soon saw what was up. She neither howled nor cursed but rather treated another lad to what Christen had paid for and thus had someone to accompany her home. Christen did not have so easy a time of it. Elsi, her resolve hardened by her mistress's words, kept firmly to her decision and would not answer Christen, no matter how much he begged and pleaded. She had to bury her head in her pillow so he couldn't hear her cry, but she steadfastly maintained her silence. Christen became furious, but still Elsi did not budge. Finally he left, half in anger and half in the belief that Elsi was so fast asleep that she had not heard him.

Christen was soon able, however, to see Elsi's new state of mind. The old friendliness was gone. Elsi acted very cool towards him, answering his questions as curtly as possible, greeting him when he greeted her, but in all other ways keeping her distance. Christen turned frantic over this behavior and yet could not stay away from Elsi. He vowed a hundred times not to think of her anymore and to break with her altogether. Yet she was constantly on his mind. He would see her white shirt sleeves shimmering through as many as seven fences and before he realized it there he was standing beneath her window. He vowed a hundred times to woo another girl right away and thus put an end to it. Yet he was not capable of acting friendly with any other girl and if one were friendly to him he became angry with her; it was as if all women carried the blame for Elsi's unfriendliness.

As Christen's sorrow grew in his heart like a noxious weed, so too did the rumor concerning the French. Militiamen had long since been called up and numerous battalions were gathered opposite the French forces, which were grouped along the borders and in Vaud. The belief gained ever greater currency among the people that the French were afraid and didn't dare attack. Meanwhile, there were many folk slinking about who tried to spread the rumor that the ruling patricians were about to betray the people. If this were not the case, the French would have left long ago; they said the French were just waiting for the right moment and were trying to work out a deal with the patricians. The real citizenry regarded the French as the embodiment of the Antichrist, as worse than man-eating cannibals. They were therefore very angry over the patricians' long-winded debates in Town Hall; their hesitancy and indecision were not calculated to deflate the calumnious rumors.

One dreadful piece of news followed the other. Then the message suddenly arrived that war had broken out and messengers flew through the valleys, calling for all men not already in active service to gather at specific meeting places. It was late in the evening of March the first that Christen received his orders. He made his preparations immediately and arranged matters at home. Neighbor after neighbor came to offer his services and not a one forgot to remind Christen: "Don't spare them, the heathens. Don't let any get away; shoot their heads and legs off and then burn them alive! Then they'll know in the future, the demons, to leave us in peace."

Christen could hardly wait till the last well-wisher had gone and he had shaken off those who wanted to accompany him on his way, for he did not want to leave without a parting word with Elsi. When he came underneath her window, he received the same welcome as before.

At that he said: "Listen, Elsi. I'm in uniform and on my way to war. Who knows if you'll ever see me alive again; you won't for sure if you don't answer me now. Come out or you might be sorry for the rest of your life."

These words touched Elsi's heart; she got up and came to the window.

Then Christen said: "So there you are after all. Well, now give me your hand and tell me you aren't mad at me and that if God spares me you'll be my wife. Promise me."

Elsi gave him her hand but was silent.

"Will you promise me?" Christen asked.

Elsi felt her heart was about to break, yet for a long time she could say nothing until Christen spoke once more: "Well, say something! Tell me you'll marry me so I know where I stand," whereupon she answered: "I can't."

"But Elsi, think about what you're saying," Christen said. "Don't do anything foolish. Don't do something you'll regret later. Say you will."

"I can't," Elsi repeated.

"Elsi, think hard about what you're doing!" Christen pleaded."Don't say it a third time. Who knows if that won't be the very last thing you ever say to me. Say yes, for God's sake, I beg of you."

Elsi felt her throat tighten. Finally she whispered: "I can't."

"Well, then think about what you've done," Christen answered, "and see how you answer to God for it."

With these words he rushed off and Elsi sank to the floor in a faint.

It was quiet in the Valley as the sun rose on the second of March. The majority of the inhabitants had been up late the evening before, accompanying the departing militiamen, so that the morning hustle and bustle was later than usual. Elsi was in a dull stupor and walked about like a faint shadow. Her mistress had seen Christen say good-bye at Elsi's window but hadn't been able to hear what they had said. She hoped they had settled everything and she felt sorry for Elsi, whose state of mind she attributed to fear for Christen's life. She consoled her as best as she could and said that it wasn't certain that there'd be war; perhaps it was once again much ado about nothing. Even if it were war this time, she had heard that in a hundred shots only one would find its target; and Christen was old enough to know how to avoid being hit and wouldn't just go rushing in like a fool. Elsi shouldn't worry; everything would turn out all right and they'd be celebrating their marriage in grand style before Whit Sunday.

This attempt at comforting, however, once again had the opposite effect and Elsi began to lament out loud, contrary to her usual reserve."He'll never come back, I know it! And I'm to blame!" she cried out in a desperate voice.

"My God," the woman said, "didn't you settle everything with him and tell him you'd marry him? That must have been why he came and maybe, too, to sign his farm over to you before he marched off from Burgdorf."

"I told him no," Elsi replied, "and he said I'd never see him alive again." At that the farmer's wife threw her hands up over her head and said: "My God, this is unbelievable! Are you crazy? Did you have a child and then murder it? Or is your father a murderer? It has to be something like that or you never would have had the heart to refuse such a lad, especially since you like him yourself, as I've seen well enough. Well, are you the murderer or was it your father? Let's hear it! I've got to know this time!"

"Neither one nor the other," said Elsi, deeply hurt over such an accusation. "I'm from a good family, which doesn't have its equal in this whole district. And it's not my fault what my father did."

"So what did he do?" asked the woman."He must have murdered somebody or else have been a counterfeiter and been put in prison or even hanged."

"No, mistress," Elsi said, "I don't know why you suspect me of such dreadful things."

"But there must be something that keeps you from marrying; a girl doesn't refuse such a man for no good reason. Did your father maybe forge documents or perhaps even commit suicide so that he was refused burial in a Christian cemetery?"

"No, mistress," Elsi said, "that's not it either. He went bankrupt and has had to go begging from door to door. I'll say it straight out so that people won't tell tales about how bad I am. Anyway it will all be over soon, and I don't want folks to be saying bad things about me when I'm in my grave."

"What? He went bankrupt? And that's the reason you won't marry, you ninny? That's what you didn't want to admit? The less you have, the more you need a rich husband. If no member of a bankrupt family could marry, just think how many people looking to get married would have to stay single."

"Oh, mistress," Elsi said, "you don't know who we were and what our misfortune meant to me."

"Well, well. You aren't at any rate the next of kin to God Himself."

Suddenly a child's voice cried out from outside,"Mommy! Mommy! They're coming, they're coming!"

"Who?" cried the woman.

"The French; they're already at Loch Creek or at least in Burgdorf. Listen to them shoot!"

"Oh Christen, Christen!" Elsi cried out. They all ran out of the house. Outside everyone as far as the eye could see was standing in front of their houses. Bang, bang; shot after shot could be heard coming muffled over the mountain. The men listened with serious faces. The women stood trembling and wherever possible stood beside or behind their husbands, touching them or holding hands; many a wife who had done nothing but nag her husband for years turned soft and tender and said, "Don't leave me, for God's sake, don't leave me. I'll never nag you again."

Finally an old man leaning on a walking stick said: "That's not dangerous. It's still far off, on the other side of the Aare River, probably in the mountains, When the militiamen train in Grenchen, the shooting sounds just the same. The troops from Bern are in Lengnau and some are said to be up in the mountains, too. The French must be trying to get through there. But just let them; they're in a tight spot and will have a bad enough time of it in Solothurn. They've got good sharpshooters in Solothurn; they're always the wildest at the shooting fests."

That encouraged the women, but it was not to the liking of many a young lad who stood with a pitchfork or halberd in his hand eager to join in the fighting.

"We'll go anyway," said one lad, "even if we have to go all the way to Solothurn. If we start now, maybe we'll get there in time for the fun."

"You'll stay here!" the old man ordered."If one fellow runs off here, another there, we won't accomplish anything; you can't drive a millstone with single drops of water. If the French break through Solothurn, then the storm will break loose; the bells will ring, the fires will burn and signal shots will be fired from the mountain. Then let every able-bodied man charge together in God's name, then the war will be on in earnest and the French will learn what it means to enter the Canton of Bern. But till then, just sit tight and wait!"

This was not to the taste of many of the hot-blooded young lads; they crept off and disappeared, and more than one was never seen again.

"So you don't think our people are fighting yet?" Elsi asked, standing next to the old man.

"Oh no," said the man, "they're probably just leaving Burgdorf now for Fraubrunnen or BlŠtterkinden. I don't know what their orders are. But it wouldn't hurt for someone to go to Burgdorf to find out what's going on."

In Burgdorf, however, matters stood about as they did back in the Valley. There was rumor after rumor, each wilder than the first. The French-haters talked about how the enemy had been beaten and how they were all either dead or half-dead. The friends of the French said just the opposite; they claimed the entire Bernese army had either been beaten, taken captive or betrayed, and told people they shouldn't resist since they'd get nothing but a rifle shot or a bayonet jab for their efforts. And so the rumors flew this way and that like clouds chasing each other before a thunderstorm.

Towards evening the shooting stopped and the countryside was once again quiet. Everyone hoped the French had been caught in a trap in Solothurn and captured by the soldiers from the mountains and from Buren. Elsi, too, felt more at ease on the strength of this hope. She had been obliged to tell her mistress who she was, whereupon the latter had once again thrown her hands up over her head in amazement. She had heard of the miller, of his behavior and of his riches, and since it was this last fact which most impressed her, she regarded Elsi with an added measure of respect. She would never have believed, she said, that a rich miller's daughter could have hidden so well who she was, although she had been able to tell right from the beginning that Elsi hadn't been a maid all her life.

"And that, you simpleton, is what you were afraid to tell him? None of that affair is your fault and even if your father is a beggar now, your family was rich and of good, old stock, and nothing was wrong with it otherwise; so one thing balances out the other. Oh, if only I could tell Christen right away. You'd see, not only would it make no difference to him, he would take your father in, too, just so he would be off the public dole."

"I wouldn't want that," said Elsi, "I don't want to live with my father and I still can't marry Christen. I don't ever want to marry anyone. I know how menfolk are; I'd have to put up with being reminded of my father and of my being poor and I couldn't stand that. I'd rather do away with myself; I was close to doing it once already. But if only Christen doesn't do something terrible out of anger and try to get shot and killed; I wouldn't be able to live with that."

"You're a silly goose," her mistress said, "not to have told him the whole story; it was just pride that stopped you. But you know what, we'll send him a message tomorrow; some old man or other will surely be sending something to his soldier sons, some cheese, ham or brandy. I don't mind sending one of our hams to Christen, and we can let him know at the same time that things have changed back home and that he should be sure and come home all in one piece as soon as possible. He'll understand what that means."

For a long time Elsi didn't want to have anything to do with this plan. She bemoaned having told her story, threatened to run away and lamented over not having died long ago. If only Christen were to come home alive, she said, she'd gladly die on the spot, but she wouldn't and couldn't marry him. Her mistress, however, did not heed Elsi's words; she had her heart set on the marriage and once a woman has decided to marry someone off, it's mighty difficult to keep her from doing it. She had a ham taken down from the chimney and didn't rest until she had found a lad who was being sent with provisions to the soldiers by a worried mother. She gave him strict instructions as to who was to receive the ham and what message was to be delivered.

This deed of the farmer's wife poured balsam onto Elsi's bleeding heart, although she wouldn't admit it. She quarreled with her mistress, saying she had been betrayed; she was mad at herself, too, for having let her story slip out. She didn't know whether she should stay or leave: she was like the fort commander who, having just spoken of defending the fort to the last man and then blowing it sky high, gradually comes to see that there is no sense in that and that staying alive would be better after all.

The third of March went by without the sound of cannon fire. But rumors came that the cities of Freiburg and Solothurn had been taken, that Buren had been burned to the ground and that the patricians wanted to surrender without a fight. This last rumor kindled a tremendous anger in whomever it reached. They would like to have a say about that too, the farmers said, but first of all those scoundrels who sold what didn't belong to them would have to answer for what they'd done. Towards evening folks reported having seen soldiers passing through the Valley who were coming from the direction of Wynigen. The soldiers reportedly said they had just come from Weissenstein and that it was all over; some of the Swiss soldiers had surrendered, the others had been scattered, and the French would be there before anyone could tell.

This report traveled with lightning speed through the entire Valley and roused everyone. But like a flash of lightning, it disappeared again, and in the end no one could say who had seen the soldiers or if they were even soldiers at all and not spies busy reconnoitering the country, for there were Germans with the French, folks said, who talked just as they did themselves and who, in fact, looked and acted just like normal folk. This news left behind nothing but more uncertainty. No one knew whether to expect the men back who had already set off or whether to send reinforcements. Folks stood around, packing and unpacking. It seemed as if it were all calculated to let the people's fiery spirit go up in smoke without getting any benefit out of it.

The lad who had been sent out did not return until the next day, the fourth of March. He came back without the ham but with bad news. He hadn't been able to find Christen, he said. He had heard that Christen had set off for Blätterkinden with his unit and he hadn't wanted to follow him there. They had told him that a fellow could stumble right into the French camp like you'd bump against a hornet's nest. Their dragoons, too, seemed to be able to fly through the air, for when you thought they were still an hour away, they would suddenly be on top of you. He had therefore left the ham in Fraubrunnen and had told the people there to give it to Christen when they saw him. The militiamen were not being sent back home. Some said they were going to wait for the French there, others said they were waiting for reinforcements before attacking the French, who didn't dare leave Solothurn. One thing was certain, they said, the fighting would soon begin.

This news upset Elsi terribly. So there was to be war and Christen was in the forefront of the fighting and purposely there, too, and all because of Elsi's refusal. There was no one there to reassure him and he had not even received the news of her change of heart. She would never see him alive again! She felt compelled to take the message herself, but she didn't know how and was afraid to run into the French all alone. Her mistress consoled her by saying the citizens' army would soon join the regular army and that then she could go along with everybody else. The farmer's wife herself would stay home in her place, for someone had to take care of the stock. So Elsi would be able to go soon enough, her mistress told her. And besides they surely wouldn't start the fighting till everyone had gotten there.

All the villagers readied themselves and chose their weapons. Elsi decided on a solid, two-pronged pitchfork with a long handle, such as is used to lift the sheaves at harvest time, and waited for the attack with great impatience.

It was on the fifth of March that the French came and the storm burst loose over Bern: bells rang out, signal fires burned on the mountain tops, cannon shots were fired and the ragamuffin citizens' army came swarming out of the valleys. They were a motley crew who didn't know what to do and whom no one tried to lead. A mass of people streamed out of the nearby villages into Burgdorf. There they were told to go to Fraubrunnen, for news had come that the French had left Solothurn. There on the fields of Fraubrunnen the battle was to take place and there the Bernese troops were waiting, including riflemen and gunners from the Heimiswyl Valley. The flood of people moved through the land, children, old men, women all jumbled together. No one thought in the least of trying to bring some order into the chaos, just as no one thought about what they would do once they were actually facing the enemy. Driven by a marvelously strong, almost inexplicable force, each person simply headed in the direction of the enemy as fast as he could, just as if it were a question of driving a herd of sheep from a plowed field. The sound of shooting, which had just commenced, did not slow them down at all; each seemed to fear that he would arrive too late.

Elsi was up among the very first and at each shot her heart stopped and she could not help thinking: was Christen hit? As they came out of the forest at Kernenried, they could see the battle beginning at the furthest end of the Fraubrunnen plain, towards Solothurn. Cannons thundered, gunshots rang out, thundering cavalry could be seen and clouds of smoke drifted out over the marshy field. The people from the valleys stood there amazed. They had never seen a battle before, or at least not more than one in a hundred had. How dreadfully the gunfire was sent back and forth! And from a distance foe could not be distinguished from friend! The longer they watched, the more amazed they became. The wild rifle and cannon fire, all with real ammunition, began to make them shudder. They decided it was best just to wait and see which way the battle went; if they just marched right into the fighting, they might join the wrong side by mistake. No one was there to organize them, to fire them up and to lead them quickly into battle. The Bernese were afflicted in those days with an incurable blindness. The soldiers, often left without officers for great lengths of time, simply stood around after they had fired and when their ardor and their rifles had been cooled by this useless waiting, they would simply disperse. The one time the soldiers were led forward rather than backward, in the battle at Neuenegg, the French learned what Swiss strength and courage are still capable of.

Elsi's heart was in her mouth as she watched everyone standing around idly, debating what to do next, and especially when she heard voices say here and there: "Listen, people, the best thing for us to do is to go home; we won't accomplish anything here."

Even if no one else went, Elsi said, she was going; why else had they come? If only she knew the shortest way across the bog. Several lads cried out that they would come along and, leaving the rest of the people, they hurried off towards Fraubrunnen. As they came onto the highway, they had a hard time squeezing their way through the incredible chaos and congestion. Elsi was almost forced to push Bernese soldiers out of the way to get past; they were standing around on the road, idly watching another battalion charge into battle. It was almost beyond belief how the soldiers stood there and engaged in battle with the enemy singly one after another, or else patiently waited till it pleased the French to attack. They did not help or support each other. At most, when one battalion had been annihilated, another would let the enemy know it was there, too, waiting for its turn to share the same fate.

Elsi was able to see all this in a flash and when the soldiers through whom she elbowed her way grumbled and told her to go home and spin flax she would say that since they were standing around like idiots, the womenfolk had to lead the way in order to save the country. If they were worth anything, she went on, they would go help their comrades. From the bog Elsi had seen a large linden tree on the field and from that direction came the smoke of cannon fire. She felt her Christen must be there, and so she hurried off as fast as her feet would carry her. When she had reached the top of a hill from which the famous linden could be seen, the cannons were still thundering. But Elsi saw that to the right, between the highway and the bog and concealed by the side of the hill, riders came flying like the wind, all dressed in foreign uniforms.

"The French! The French are coming!" she cried as loud as she could, but her voice was lost in the roar of the cannons.

The riders knew exactly what they wanted to do: knock out the artillery which had begun to be troublesome to them. They too made for the linden tree and once they reached it, charged onto the road and into the midst of the gunners. The artillerymen were unprotected and tried to hide among their cannons, but one after another was cut down. Soon there was only one last gunner left standing, courageously defending himself with a short-bladed sabre: it was Christen.

"Christen, Christen! Fight them off; I'm coming!" cried Elsi in a loud voice.

Christen heard the call, saw Elsi, but in the same instant sank down between the cannons, mortally wounded. With the fierceness of an angry lioness, Elsi rushed against the French. They called out to her, granting her free passage, but she heard nothing. With her pitchfork she threw the first rider from his horse and struck at anything which lay between Christen and her, wounding both men and horses. Blades whizzed all around her, yet she managed to struggle through till she collapsed by the cannons. In front of her lay Christen.

"Oh Christen! Are you still alive?" she called, herself fast approaching death.

Christen tried to raise himself up but couldn't; he gave her his bloody hand, and hand in hand they passed on into that land where nothing more divides those souls who have found each other on earth.

The French were touched by their death, for even the wild hussars were not unreceptive to true love. They told others the story of the two lovers and each time they told it they would grow sad and say that if they had known what each had meant to the other, both would still be alive; but in the fury of battle there was no time for lengthy questions.

Translation by Robert Godwin-Jones, 1984


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