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The Red Countess

Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling


Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

1Dear Doctor:

2When you left my cell an hour ago, you were extremely irritated and told me angrily that no one would be able to make any sense of what I had been saying; that my violent outbursts were making things even more difficult for you; and that in light of my behaviour it had become impossible for you to build a case for my defence. You are quite right. Although I did try very hard to explain the matter to you, I could not find the right words, and it was impossible for me, without flying into a rage, to say the one thing that holds the key to the whole situation. If that thing were to cross my lips, I felt, a dam would burst somewhere inside me: despair, hatred, fury, and an uncontrollable desire for revenge would surge like storm waves over my brain and completely overwhelm any rational thought. Maybe I can present my case better in writing.

3I am accused of murder, of the murder of an honourable citizen of our town — and a good friend.

4I know how people see me. They think I am a bloodthirsty monster still greedy for blood after three years at the front and ready to commit murder to get it.

5Three years at the front, doctor — do you know what that means? It means three years of misery, horror, despair — and blood! Three years of living in mortal fear, three years of committing murder! This can change a man. And yet when I came home after having been lucky enough to get shot in the leg and invalided out, I immediately took up my old life again, went to the office, worked, and lived contentedly with my wife — as though nothing had happened.

6From time to time, at night, in my dreams, I heard the thunder of artillery fire and the groans of the wounded, but those phantoms vanished with the dawn and everything was normal again.

7Until one summer evening, when the horror that seemed to have been forgotten opened its hellish maw and belched its stinking, diabolical breath in my face.

8I was sitting with my wife at dinner. The last rays of the setting sun were streaming through the red curtains of the dining-room. Suddenly my wife cried out: “Look at your hand. It looks as though it was covered with blood!” I glanced down at my hand and all at once felt cold shivers run down my spine. When had I seen this before? Yes, it was during a bayonet attack, I remembered. I also remembered my horror and disgust as I tried to wipe off the sticky gore. My wife laughed and placed her hand on mine for a moment. How white that hand was, how pure and unsullied. But mine?

9From then on I had the feeling that my hand could never be washed clean again. The sickening smell of blood hovered around me day and night. Grisly images would spring up before my eyes. There was now a hole in the curtain that had come down between me and the things I had experienced.

10Perhaps I could have borne all this. Perhaps I would have sunk back again into my blissful mindlessness. But I noticed something else: All the people around me had clean hands. In the office I would stop in the middle of writing as I observed my fellow-employees’ hands gliding white and spotless over white paper. I no longer saw people’s faces or bodies, I saw only hands.

11Gradually a hatred of those with white hands began to stir in my heart. Repressed and concealed, it grew more and more fierce. I had had to commit murder, I had had to besmirch myself with the blood of my fellow-man; while they had stayed home, innocent and good, with their clean hands.

12In order not to have to see those accursed white hands, I withdrew from all human company. My lovely wife became abhorrent to me. I was overcome by disgust whenever she touched me.

13The man I murdered had been my friend. He tried to shake me out of my depression, he made every conceivable effort to distract me. There were times when I was touched by his goodness and kindness, times when I felt aching compassion and fervent love for all human beings, when I wanted to help them and liberate them. But no sooner did my glance fall on their hands than hatred boiled up in me again and poisoned my soul.

14This situation may have lasted for about three months. Finally, I reached a point at which I no longer saw human beings, only spotless white hands fluttering derisively before my eyes and pointing accusingly at my guilty, bloodstained fingers.

15A new thought had wormed its way into my brain: that the world will not be redeemed until all human beings have had their hands dipped in guilt and blood, until there is nobody who can go about bearing the mark of innocence. Everybody must be driven into guilt and smut so as to be made aware of his or her wickedness and led to do penance for it. Anyone who refuses must be eliminated.

16One evening my friend came to visit me and would not be put out by the surliness with which I received him. He chatted animatedly about all kinds of things, including attacks on him by his enemies in the newspaper. Suddenly he uttered the fateful words. Laughing, he raised his hand and said: “Their attacks don’t bother me in the least. My hands are clean!”

17In that moment all the horror I had experienced raced through my brain, I saw the chaos of combat, heard the screams of the wounded, the death rattles of the dying, I saw on both sides a huge mass of innocent murderers rushing into battle, goaded on by whips wielded by clean, white hands.

18You know the rest; there was a revolver in my desk drawer. But now you will understand a detail that puzzled the police; namely that the victim’s hands were smeared all over with blood.

19I have confessed to the murder and I am ready to pay with my life for my crime — not, however, for the crime that the court will condemn me for, but for the killing of my brothers at the front. I was a murderer long before I used my revolver against my friend.

20One more request, dear Doctor. If the death sentence is carried out on me, please see to it that my hands are not washed. I do not want to appear before my eternal Judge with the mark of inexpiable guilt — white hands.

21With the deepest respect, Doctor,

22I am,

23Yours truly,

24Karl David.


Der rote Heiland (Leipzig-Plagwitz: Verlag Die Wölfe, 1924), pp. 71–74.


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