The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/The Whirligig of Time

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The Atlantic Monthly  (1858) 
The Whirligig of Time

Featured in Vol 2., No.5 of The Atlantic Monthly. Author not attributed.


"And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges."—Twelfth Night.

My friend Jameson, the lawyer, has frequently whiled away an evening in relating incidents which occurred in his practice during his residence in a Western State. On one occasion he gave a sketch of a criminal trial in which he was employed as counsel; the story, as developed in court and completed by one of the parties subsequently, made so indelible an impression on my mind that I am constrained to write down its leading features. At the same time, I must say, that, if I had heard it without a voucher for its authenticity, I should have regarded it as the most improbable of fictions. But the observing reader will remember that remarkable coincidences, and the signal triumph of the right, called poetical justice, are sometimes seen in actual life as well as in novels.

The tale must begin in Saxony. Carl Proch was an honest farmer, who tilled a small tract of crown land and thereby supported his aged mother. Faithful to his duties, he had never a thought of discontent, but was willing to plod on in the way his father had gone before him. Filial affection, however, did not so far engross him as to prevent his casting admiring glances on the lovely Katrine, daughter of old Rauchen, the miller; and no wonder, for she was as fascinating a damsel as ever dazzled and perplexed a bashful lover. She had admiration enough, for to see her was to love her; many of the village youngsters had looked unutterable things as they met her at May-feasts and holidays, but up to this time she had received no poetical epistles nor direct proposals, and was as cheerful and heart-free as the birds that sang around her windows. Her father was the traditional guardian of beauty, surly as the mastiff that watched his sacks of flour and his hoard of thalers; and though he doted on his darling Katrine, his heart to all the world beside seemed to be only a chip from one of his old mill-stones. When Carl thought of the severe gray eyes that shot such glances at all lingering youths, the difficulty of winning the pretty heiress seemed to be quite enough, even with a field clear of rivals. But two other suitors now made advances, more or less openly, and poor Carl thought himself entirely overshadowed. One was Schönfeld, the most considerable farmer in the neighborhood, a widower, with hair beginning to show threads of silver, and a fierce man withal, who was supposed to have once slain a rival, wearing thereafter a seam in his cheek as a souvenir of the encounter. The other was Hans Stolzen, a carpenter, past thirty, a shrewd, well-to-do fellow, with nearly a thousand thalers saved from his earnings. Carl had never fought a duel,—and he had not saved so much as a thousand groschen, to say nothing of thalers; he had only a manly figure, a cheery, open face, the freshness of one-and-twenty, and a heart incapable of guile. Katrine was not long in discovering these excellences, and, if his boldness had equalled his passion, she would have shown him how little she esteemed the pretensions of the proud landholder or the miserly carpenter. But he took it for granted that he was a fool to contend against such odds, and, buttoning his jacket tightly over his throbbing heart, toiled away in his little fields, thinking that the whole world had never contained so miserable a man.

Hans Stolzen was the first to propose. He began by paying court to the jealous Rauchen himself, set forth his property and prospects, and asked to become his son-in-law. The miller heard him, puffed long whiffs, and answered civilly, but without committing himself. He was in no hurry to part with the only joy he had, and, as Katrine was barely eighteen, he naturally thought there would be time enough to consider of her marriage hereafter. Hans hardly expected anything more decisive, and, as he had not been flatly refused, came frequently to the house and chatted with her father, while his eyes followed the vivacious Katrine as she tripped about her household duties. But Hans was perpetually kept at a distance; the humming-bird would never alight upon the outstretched hand. He had not the wit to see that their natures had nothing in common, although he did know that Katrine was utterly indifferent towards him, and after some months of hopeless pursuit he began to grow sullenly angry. He was not long without an object on which to vent his rage.

One evening, as Katrine was returning homeward, she chanced to pass Carl's cottage. Carl was loitering under a tree hard by, listening to the quick footsteps to which his heart kept time. It was the coming of Fate to him, for he had made up his mind to tell her of the love that was consuming him. Two days before, with tears on his bashful face, he had confided all to his mother; and, at her suggestion, he had now provided a little present by way of introduction. Katrine smiled sweetly as she approached, for, with a woman's quick eye, she had read his glances long before. His lips at first rebelled, but he struggled out a salutation, and, the ice once broken, he found himself strangely unembarrassed. He breathed freely. It seemed to him that their relations must have been fixed in some previous state of existence, so natural was it to be in familiar and almost affectionate communication with the woman whom before he had loved afar off, as a page might sigh for a queen.

"Stay, Katrine," he said,—"I had nearly forgotten." He ran hastily into the cottage, and soon returned with a covered basket. "See, Katrine, these white rabbits!—are they not pretty?"

"Oh, the little pets!" exclaimed Katrine. "Are they yours?"

"No, Katrinchen,—that is, they were mine; now they are yours."

"Thank you, Carl. I shall love them dearly."

"For my sake?"

"For their own, Carl, certainly; for yours also,—a little."

"Good-bye, Bunny," said he, patting the head of one of the rabbits. "Love your mistress; and, mind, little whitey, don't keep those long ears of yours for nothing; tell me if you ever hear anything about me."

"Perhaps Carl had better come and hear for himself,—don't you think so, Bunny?" said Katrine, taking the basket.

The tone and manner said more than the words. Carl's pulses bounded; he seized her unresisting hand and covered it with kisses. "So! this is the bashful young man!" thought Katrine. "I shall not need to encourage him any more, surely."

The night was coming on; Katrine remembered her father, and started towards the mill, whose broad arms could scarcely be seen through the twilight. Carl accompanied her to the gate, and, after a furtive glance upward to the house-windows, bade her farewell, with a kiss, and turned homeward, feeling himself a man for the first time in his life.

Frau Proch had seen the pantomime through the flowers that stood on the window-sill, not ill-pleased, and was waiting her son's return. An hour passed, and he did not come. Another hour, and she began to grow anxious. When it was near midnight, she roused her nearest neighbor and asked him to go towards the mill and look for Carl. An hour of terrible suspense ensued. It was worse than she had even feared. Carl lay by the roadside, not far from the mill, insensible, covered with blood, moaning feebly at first, and afterwards silent, if not breathless. Ghastly wounds covered his head, and his arms and shoulders were livid with bruises. The neighboring peasants surrounded the apparently lifeless body, and listened with awe to the frenzied imprecations of Frau Proch upon the murderer of her son. "May he die in a foreign land," said she, lifting her withered hands to Heaven, "without wife to nurse him or priest to speak peace to his soul! May his body lie unburied, a prey for wolves and vultures! May his inheritance pass into the hands of strangers, and his name perish from the earth!" They muttered their prayers, as they encountered her bloodshot, but tearless eyes, and left her with her son.

For a whole day and night he did not speak; then a violent brain-fever set in, and he raved continually. He fancied himself pursued by Hans Stolzen, and recoiled as from the blows of his staff. When this was reported, suspicion was directed at once to Stolzen as the criminal; but before an arrest could be made, it was found that he had fled. His disappearance confirmed the belief of his guilt. In truth, it was the rejected suitor, who, in a fit of jealous rage, had waylaid his rival in the dark, beat him, and left him for dead.

Katrine, who had always disliked Stolzen, especially after he had pursued her with his coarse and awkward gallantry, now naturally felt a warmer affection for the victim of his brutality. She threw off all disguise, and went frequently to Frau Proch's cottage, to aid in nursing the invalid during his slow and painful recovery. She had, one day, the unspeakable pleasure of catching the first gleam of returning sanity in her hapless lover, as she bent over him and with gentle fingers smoothed his knotted forehead and temples. An indissoluble tie now bound them together; their mutual love was consecrated by suffering and sacrifice; and they vowed to be faithful in life and in death.

When Carl at length became strong and commenced labor, he hoped speedily to claim his betrothed, and was waiting a favorable opportunity to obtain her father's consent to their marriage. The scars were the only evidence of the suffering he had endured. No bones had been broken, and he was as erect and as vigorous as before the assault. But Carl, most unfortunate of men, was not destined so soon to enjoy the happiness for which he hoped,—the love that had called him back to life. As the robber eagle sits on his cliff, waiting till the hawk has seized the ring-dove, then darts down and beats off the captor, that he may secure for himself the prize,—so Schönfeld, not uninformed of what was going on, stood ready to pounce upon the suitor who should gain Katrine's favor, and sweep the last rival out of the way. An officer in the king's service appeared in the village to draw the conscripts for the army, and the young men trembled like penned-up sheep at the entrance of the blood-stained butcher, not knowing who would be seized for the shambles. The officer had apparently been a friend and companion of Schönfeld's in former days, and passed some time at his house. It was perhaps only a coincidence, but it struck the neighbors as very odd at least, that Carl Proch was the first man drawn for the army. He had no money to hire a substitute, and there was no alternative; he must serve his three years. This last blow was too much for his poor mother. Worn down by her constant assiduity in nursing him, and overcome by the sense of utter desolation, she sunk into her grave, and was buried on the very day that Carl, with the other recruits, was marched off.

What new torture the betrothed Katrine felt is not to be told. Three years were to her an eternity; and her imagination called up such visions of danger from wounds, privations, and disease, that she parted from her lover as though it were forever. The miller found that the light and the melody of his house were gone. Katrine was silent and sorrowful; her frame wasted and her step grew feeble. To all his offers of condolence she made no reply, except to remind him how with tears she had besought his interference in Carl's behalf. She would not be comforted. The father little knew the feeling she possessed; he had thought that her attachment to her rustic lover was only a girlish fancy, and that she would speedily forget him; but now her despairing look frightened him. To the neighbors, who looked inquisitively as he sat by the mill-door, smoking, he complained of the quality of his tobacco, vowing that it made his eyes so tender that they watered upon the slightest whiff.

For six months Schönfeld wisely kept away; that period, he thought, would be long enough to efface any recollection of the absent soldier. Then he presented himself, and, in his usual imperious way, offered his hand to Katrine. The miller was inclined to favor his suit. In wealth and position Schönfeld was first in the village; he would be a powerful ally, and a very disagreeable enemy. In fact, Rauchen really feared to refuse the demand; and he plied his daughter with such argument as he could command, hoping to move her to accept the offer. Katrine, however, was convinced of the truth of her former suspicion, that Carl was a victim of Schönfeld's craft; and her rejection of his proposal was pointed with an indignation which she took no pains to conceal. The old scar showed strangely white in his purple face, as he left the mill, vowing vengeance for the affront.

Rauchen and his daughter were now more solitary than ever. The father had forgotten the roaring stories he used to tell to the neighboring peasants, over foaming flagons of ale, at the little inn; he sat at his mill-door and smoked incessantly. Katrine shunned the festivities in which she was once queen, and her manner, though kindly, was silent and reserved; she went to church, it is true, but she wore a look of settled sorrow that awed curiosity and even repelled sympathy. But scandal is a plant that needs no root in the earth; like the houseleek, it can thrive upon air; and those who separate themselves the most entirely from the world are apt, for that very reason, to receive the larger share of its attention. The village girls looked first with pity, then with wonder, and at length with aversion, upon the gentle and unfortunate Katrine. Careless as she was with regard to public opinion, she saw not without pain the altered looks of her old associates, and before long she came to know the cause. A cruel suspicion had been whispered about, touching her in a most tender point. It was not without reason, so the gossip ran, that she had refused so eligible an offer of marriage Schönfeld's. The story reached the ears of Rauchen, at last. With a fierce energy, such as he had never exhibited before, he tracked it from cottage to cottage, until he came to Schönfeld's housekeeper, who refused to give her authority. The next market-day Rauchen encountered the former suitor and publicly charged him with the slander, in such terms as his baseness deserved. Schönfeld, thrown off his guard by the sudden attack, struck his adversary a heavy blow; but the miller rushed upon him, and left him to be carried home, a bundle of aches and bruises. After this the tongues of the gossips were quiet; no one was willing to answer for guesses or rumors at the end of Rauchen's staff; and the father and daughter resumed their monotonous mode of life.

The three years at length passed, and Carl Proch returned home,—a trifle more sedate, perhaps, but the same noble, manly fellow. How warmly he was received by the constant Katrine it is not necessary to relate. Rauchen was not disposed to thwart his long-suffering daughter any further; and with his consent the young couple were speedily married, and lived in his house. The gayety of former years came back; cheerful songs and merry laughter were heard in the lately silent rooms. Rauchen himself grew younger, especially after the birth of a grandson, and often resumed his old place at the inn, telling the old stories with the old gusto over the ever-welcome ale. But one morning, not long after, he was found dead in his bed; a smile was on his face, and his limbs were stretched out as in peaceful repose.

There was no longer any tie to bind Carl to his native village. All his kin, as well as Katrine's, were in the grave. He was not bred a miller, and did not feel competent to manage the mill. Besides, his mind had received new ideas while he was in the army. He had heard of countries where men were equal before the laws, where the peasant owed no allegiance but to society. The germ of liberty had been planted in his breast, and he could no longer live contented with the rank in which he had been born. At least he wished that his children might grow up free from the chilling influences that had fallen upon him. At his earnest persuasion, Katrine consented that the mill should be sold, and soon after, with his wife and child, he went to Bremen and embarked for America.

We must now follow the absconding Stolzen, who, with his bag of thalers, had made good his escape into England. He lived in London, where he found society among his countrymen. His habitual shrewdness never deserted him, and from small beginnings he gradually amassed a moderate fortune. His first experiment in proposing for a wife satisfied him, but in a great city his sensual nature was fully developed. His brutal passions were unchecked; conscience seemed to have left him utterly. At length he began to think about quitting London. He was afraid to return to Germany, for, as he had left Carl to all appearance dead, he thought the officers of the law would seize him. He determined to go to Australia, and secured a berth in a clipper ship bound for Melbourne, but some accident prevented his reaching the pier in season; the vessel sailed without him, and was never heard of afterwards. Then he proposed to buy an estate in Canada; but the owner failed to make his appearance at the time appointed for the negotiation, and the bargain was not completed. At last he took passage for New York, whither a Hebrew acquaintance of his had gone, a year or two before, and was established as a broker. Upon arriving in that city, Stolzen purchased of an agent a tract of land in a Western State, situated on the shore of Lake Michigan; and after reserving a sum of money for immediate purposes, he deposited his funds with his friend, the broker, and started westward. He travelled the usual route by rail, then a short distance in a mail-coach, which carried him within six miles of his farm. Leaving his luggage to be sent for, he started to walk the remaining distance. It was a sultry day, and the prairie road was anything but pleasant to a pedestrian unaccustomed to heat and dust. After walking less than an hour, he determined to stop at a small house near the road, for rest, and some water to quench his thirst; but as he approached, the baying hounds, no less than the squalid children about the door, repelled him, and he went on to the next house. He now turned down a green lane, between rows of thrifty trees, to a neat log-cabin, whose nicely-plastered walls and the regular fence inclosing it testified to the thrift and good taste of the owner. He knocked; all was still. Again, and thirsty as he was, he was on the point of leaving, when he heard a step within. He waited; the door opened, and before him stood———Katrine!

She did not know him; but he had not forgotten that voluptuous figure nor those melting blue eyes. He preferred his requests, looking through the doorway at the same time to make sure that she had no protector. Katrine brought the stranger a gourd of water, and offered him a chair. She did not see the baleful eyes he threw after her as she went about her household duties. Stolzen had dropped from her firmament like a fallen and forgotten star. Secure in her unsuspecting innocence, she chirruped to her baby and resumed her sewing.

That evening, when Carl Proch returned from his field, after his usual hard day's labor, he found his wife on the floor, sobbing, speechless, and the child, unnoticed, crying in his cradle. His dog sat by the hearth with a look of almost intelligent sympathy, and whined as his master entered the room. He raised Katrine and held her in his arms like a child, covered her face with kisses, and implored her to speak. She seemed to be in a fearful dream, and shrunk from some imagined danger in the extremest terror. Gradually her sobs became less frequent, her tremors ceased, and she smiled upon the manly face that met hers, as though she had only suffered from an imaginary fright. But when she felt her hair floating upon her shoulders, saw the almost speaking face of the dog, Bruno, and became conscious of the cries of the neglected child, the wave of agony swept over her again, and she could utter only broken ejaculations. As word after word came from her lips, the unhappy husband's flesh tingled; his hair stiffened with horror; every nerve seemed to be strung with a new and maddening tension. There was for him no such thing as fatigue, no distance, no danger,—no law, no hereafter, no God. All thought and feeling were drowned in one wild desire for vengeance,—vengeance swift, terrible, and final.

He first caressed the dog as though he had been a brother; he put his arms about the shaggy neck, and shook each faithful paw; he made his wife caress him also. "God be praised, dear Katrine, for your protector, the dog!" said he. "Come, now, Bruno!"

Katrine saw him depart with his dog and gun; but if she guessed his errand, she did not dare remonstrate. He walked off rapidly,—the dog in advance, now and then baying as though he were on a trail.

In the night he returned, and he smiled grimly as he set down the rifle in its accustomed corner. His wife was waiting for him with intense anxiety. It was marvellous to her that he was so cheerful. He trotted her upon his knee, pressed her a hundred times to his bosom, kissed her forehead, lips, and cheeks, called her his pretty Kate, his dear wife, and every endearing name he knew. So they sat, like lovers in their teens, till the purpling east told of a new day.

The luggage of one Stolzen, a stagecoach passenger, remained at the tavern uncalled-for, for nearly a year. No one knew the man, and his disappearance, though a profound mystery, was not an uncommon thing in a new country. The Hebrew broker in New York received no answers to his letters, though he had carefully preserved the post-office address which Stolzen had given him. He began to fear lest he should be obliged to fulfil the duty of heirship to the property deposited with him. To quiet his natural apprehensions in view of this event, he determined to follow Stolzen's track, as much of it as lay in this world, at least, and find out what had become of him. Upon arriving in the neighborhood, the Jew had a thorough search made. The country was scoured, and on the third day there was a discovery. A man walking on the sandy margin of a river, about two or three miles from Carl's house, saw a skull before him. As the steep bluff nearly overhung the spot where he stood, he conjectured that the body to which the skull belonged was to be found above on its verge. He climbed up, and there saw a headless skeleton. It was the body of Stolzen, as his memorandum-book and other articles showed. His pistol was in his pocket, and still loaded; that fact precluded the idea of suicide. Moreover, upon examining more closely, a bullet-hole was found in his breast-bone, around which the parts were broken outwardly, showing that the ball must have entered from behind. It was clear that Stolzen had been murdered.

The curse of Frau Proch had been most terribly fulfilled.

Circumstances soon pointed to Carl Proch as the perpetrator. A stranger, corresponding to the deceased in size and dress, had been seen, about the time of his disappearance, by the neighboring family, walking towards Proch's house; and on the evening of the same day an Irishman met Carl going at a rapid rate, with a gun on his shoulder, as though in furious pursuit of some one. A warrant for his arrest was issued, and he was lodged in jail to await his trial. If now the Hebrew had followed the lex talionis, after the manner of his race in ancient times, it might have fared badly with poor Carl. But as soon as the broker was satisfied beyond a peradventure that the depositor was actually dead, he hastened back to New York, joyful as a crow over a newly-found carcass, to administer upon the estate, leaving the law to take its own course with regard to the murderer.

Beyond the two facts just mentioned as implicating Carl, nothing was proved at the trial. Jameson, the lawyer, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this story, was engaged for the defence. He found Carl singularly uncommunicative; and though the government failed to make out a shadow of a case against his client, he was yet puzzled in his own mind by Carl's silence, and his real or assumed indifference. Katrine was in court with her child in her arms, watching the proceedings with the closest attention; though she, as well as Carl, was unable to understand any but the most familiar and colloquial English. The case was speedily decided; the few facts presented to the jury appeared to have no necessary connection, and there was no known motive for the deed. The jury unanimously acquitted Carl, and with his wife and boy he left the court-room. The verdict was approved by the spectators, for no man in the neighborhood was more universally loved and respected than Carl Proch.

Having paid Jameson his fee for his services, Carl was about to depart, when the lawyer's curiosity could be restrained no longer, and he called his client back to the private room of his office.

"Carl," said he, "you look like a good fellow, above anything mean or wicked; but yet I don't know what to make of you. Now you are entirely through with this scrape; you are acquitted; and I want to know what is the meaning of it all. I will keep it secret from all your neighbors. Did you kill Stolzen, or not?"

"Well, if I did," he answered, "can they do anything with me?"

"No," said Jameson.

"Not if I acknowledge?"

"No, you have been acquitted by a jury; and by our law a man can never be tried twice for the same offence. You are safe, even if you should go into court and confess the deed."

"Well, then, I did kill him,—and I would again!"

For the moment, a fierce light gleamed upon the calm and kindly face. Then, feeling that his answer would give a false view of the case, without the previous history of the parties, Carl sat down and in his broken English told to his lawyer the story I have here attempted to record. It was impossible to doubt a word of it; for the simplicity and pathos of the narrative were above all art. Here was a simple case, which the boldest inventor of schemes to punish villany would have been afraid to use. Its truth is the thing that most startles the mind accustomed to deal with fictions.

We leave Carl to return to his farm with his wife, for whom he had suffered so much, and with the hope that no further temptation may come to him in such a guise as almost to make murder a virtue.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.