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The Red Countess

Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

Miss Brington

Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Note de l’éditeur

Translator’s note: This little story obviously reflects the author’s many years of familiarity with boarding houses. At the time of its publication it must have been especially meaningful to the readers of Die Zeitung — largely middleclass German and Austrian refugees in England, many of whom had had to settle in such boarding houses. In England, as is well known, the boarding house is a peculiarly drab and depressing institution.
At the same time, Zur Mühlen was clearly able to identify with the downtrodden, narrow-minded, deprived landlady. She too knew what it was to have to toil ceaselessly and she too transcended her own miseries to some extent by seeking to lighten the burdens born by others and placing her hopes in a better world to come.

Texte intégral

1Every evening, when the residents of the boarding house, with unshakable optimism, tried to turn on the radio, the landlady appeared and, with a deep sigh, said: “Do give the machine a rest.”

2Miss Brington — no one knew her by her first name; she was one of those people from whom one gets the impression that in their entire lives no one ever called them by their first name, let alone by a friendly nickname — Miss Brington had raised the art of sighing to a level perhaps never attained by any other human being. Her scale of sighs embraced not just eight tones, but twenty-four at least. It began with an exhalation that wafted through the dining room like a gentle spring breeze whenever one of the residents asked for more bread, increased in volume and intensity with each new request, until, if someone reached for the knob on the radio, it became so strong, deep, and sustained that you were reminded of autumn gales blowing through the moonlit ruins of old castles on eerie nights.

3Miss Brington was not unfriendly and she was not friendly. You could almost say that she simply was not. Something swept out the rooms and dusted, something cooked the meals in the kitchen no one was permitted to enter, something laid the table and cleared it afterwards, something served the food, something worked in the little house from morning to night — you could see hands, feet going up and down the stairs, a brown dress, and a yellow sweater — and the name of this something was Miss Brington. But what might lie hidden behind the expressionless face, whether Miss Brington had any idea of what went on around her, whether she could feel happy or angry, whether she liked people or hated them — that there was no way of knowing.

4She seemed possessed by a single idea: the idea of rest. If the water heater broke down — which happened often — she would write on a slip of paper not, as other people would: “Do not turn on the water heater,” but “Please give the water heater a rest.” Even the broom, which she grudgingly let people borrow, sometimes had a notice stuck to it: “Please give the broom a rest.” And one Monday morning, after the residents had had more visitors than usual on the preceding Sunday, a slip of paper was found tied to the door knocker with a little piece of blue ribbon: “The door knocker needs a bit of rest.”

5Once and once only Miss Brington made a comment about the political situation. She stood in the garden and looked up into the bright sky in which gleaming barrage balloons floated like giant silver fish, uttered one of her middle-range sighs, and declared: “They ought to bring the barrage balloons in. After all, they have to get a bit of rest.”

6You were tempted at first to laugh at this endlessly repeated, hackneyed expression. But you soon came to see that it was the hole in the curtain behind which was concealed the inapprehensible, toiling, sighing something that was known publicly as Miss Brington. Through the hole you could glimpse the scene of a life which in fact had never been a proper life.

7Thanks to a faded photograph marked with a date that hung in the dining room, you knew that Miss Brington’s father had died when she was ten years old and that at that point she already owned the little house. A little house of one’s own — the dream and pride of every family on King’s Row. A little house that widow and daughter had to hold on to if they were not to slide down into the lower ranks of society where people have no home of their own and have to live in rented rooms.

8Perhaps little Miss Brington learned to utter some of her lighter sighs when, instead of playing with her school friends, she had to stay home and help her working mother. Perhaps coming home from school as it was already getting dark and having to deliver the sewing her mother took in (the later the better; the neighbours don’t have to know we need to earn money this way), perhaps that is what first gave her the idea that it would be nice to sit still and rest a while. Perhaps it was when she was scrubbing the outside steps that she first began to feel it would be good to give the wash-rag and the broom a rest, so that even they could enjoy a little peace and quiet after what, for a child, had been an over-full day.

9And so life must have gone on. Times did not get easier. The mother aged quickly and the daughter was left with all the work. At first she rented out one room, then two, then three. But at least they still owned the house and, as night began to fall, could go into their own little garden and breathe in the fresh air. And that was worth all the sacrifices.

10Doubtless the two women never spoke to each other. What was there to say? They worked away side by side and each of them longed for night to come and with it, finally, rest and sleep. Possibly, for a while, night time was also a time when the young Miss Brington allowed her imagination to wander: other girls go dancing, gossip and laugh with each other, people fall in love with them and marry them… But, of course, other girls are not so constantly tired and do not carry the weight of a whole house on their shoulders. Perhaps there were nights when the young Miss Brington hated the house that deprived her of rest and happiness, but if so, it was likely to be an impotent hatred, the kind of hatred people feel for an invincible, all-powerful tyrant. And her stone tyrant made ever more demands on her. Her tyrant was often sick and in need of a great deal of care and attention. The roof needed to be repaired; the gutters had started to leak. All that cost money, lots of money. The rooms became shabby; the old furniture needed a rest too, and if it did not get it, became sullen and difficult, let its legs and arms break, and in anger spewed horsehair and kapok out of its cushions. And so it caused more work.

11The war came. Miss Brington hardly noticed it. She had no relatives or friends to worry about. She only had her old mother, who was becoming meaner by the day, and the ageing, ever more demanding house.

12She had become almost completely unaccustomed to speaking. As her mother was now stone deaf, it was pointless talking to her, and her lodgers appeared strange and incomprehensible to Miss Brington — noisy people who always wanted something and were never at rest, not even on a Sunday. It was better to communicate with them through sighs and little slips of paper. It was around this time that Miss Brington developed sighing into an art; around this time too, perhaps, that for the first time in many years a feeling was aroused in her: a feeling of compassion for things that are used every day, often enough every hour, and that — who knows? — were perhaps as weary as she. She was unhappy when someone forced the broom, which had already put in a morning’s work, to sweep again in the afternoon. She was firmly convinced that the water heater had given up out of weariness and would return dutifully to work if it were granted just a few days’ rest. As for the radio, it had to be protected from the heedless residents who kept wanting to turn it on.

13She herself could not ask for protection, she herself could not give up working; but she could stretch out a helping hand to dumb, helpless things, and this capacity gave her something she had never had before: self-awareness and confidence. She — who in her entire life, had never had enough money, who in her entire life had never been able to exercise her will on anything — had the power to grant rest to someone or something; she had the power to give the most precious gift she could imagine.

14And so she lived on, a something that worked and sighed and, if only from time to time, quite rarely, smiled to herself when she thought of the day that house and garden, people and things would disappear and she would wake up in a more beautiful world and discover that an angel had tied a broad blue ribbon around her, to which was attached a slip of paper that said: “Please give Miss Brington a bit of rest. She has worked enough.”


“Miß Brington,” Die Zeitung, London, 10 November 1941, p. 3; Zeitspiegel, London, No. 23/24, 8 June 1946, p. 6; Arbeiter-Zeitung, Vienna, No. 176, 30 July 1949, p. 5.


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