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The Red Countess

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Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

We Have to Tell Them

Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

1By June the little girl was beginning to count the days until the vacation. At eight years of age, she had made the discovery that all days are not equally long. Toward the end of the holidays, they rush by like crazy, faster than horses, faster than cars — but just before the holidays they creep along like snails or like the old man who stood outside the Church on Sundays begging, and to whom the little girl was permitted to give a few pennies. The little girl spoke to her father about this curious discovery of hers and found it hard to believe him when he told her that all the days are of equal length and that it is only fear or longing that makes one hour stretch out to two, sometimes even three or, in contrast, makes the same hour shrink to half an hour or even just a quarter of an hour. She did understand about longing, however. Had she not been longing for months now for the day when she would be told: “Tomorrow we are leaving for Wognin.” Wognin was the family estate in Slovakia, but it might just as well have been called “Heaven” or “Paradise.” Perhaps it wasn’t so much the old castle and the property itself that she loved — though the paddock was every bit as beautiful as the Garden of Eden could have been. It was the little village itself, with its brightly painted houses, its little shops, and its weekly market. That was even more marvellous, alluring, and exciting. And this year everything was especially wonderful, for poor nanny had gone off to see her sick mother, and the little girl, who was now ten, was allowed to go into the village by herself and play with the village children.

2Early one bright, sunny day she set out, neat and clean, in a white dress, beaming with joyful anticipation. But as she turned into the little street by the brook, she heard terrible screams. She ran in the direction the noise was coming from. Half an hour later, she was heading home, beaten up, panting, crying, red-faced, her white dress torn and dirty.

3Her parents were still sitting at the breakfast table when she burst on to the veranda.

4“What you look like!” her mother said sternly. “Go and get changed immediately.”

5Her father, however, glanced at her little face and said, “Sit down, Nina. Tell us what happened.”

6Still panting and sobbing, Nina struggled to get her breath back, and finally let out a string of unconnected words: “Jan and Hanus and Svata and miller Nedbal’s big son…”

7“Yes?” her father asked gently. “What about them?”

8“You’ve got to give them a hiding, father. Right away. Let’s go. You’ve got to give them a good hiding.”

9“Why so?”

10The little girl blew her nose. Her voice trembled. But it was with anger now.

11“Do you know what they did? All four of them, such big boys, and Nedbar’s son is already a grown-up, all four of them jumped on little Heini — you know who I mean, father, Heini Neuwirth — and beat him up, four against one, and Heini is still so small, and then they threw stones at him and screamed Zid (Jew) at him…”

12Nina’s mother wrinkled her forehead. “I keep telling you, Nina, you should not be playing with the brats from the village. That’s what happens. Just look at your dress…”

13“Brutes,” her father said crossly. Then: “And what did you do, Nina?” he asked in a tense voice.

14“I hit Jan a good clip round the ears,” said Nina. “He is the smallest of them. Then I yelled at them and threatened them. And they all ran away. They’re cowards into the bargain, the brutes.”

15“Don’t use such common expressions, Nina,” her mother interjected reprovingly.

16“But even father said… And anyway they are brutes. Four against one. All the stronger ones against one weak one. Come on, father. Let’s go and give them a good hiding.”

17“We can’t do that, Nina.”

18“But someone has to do something. There was no one on the street at the time. No one saw what those wicked boys did. Father…”

19“Look, Nina, I can’t do anything about this,” said her father, and if it had not been so unthinkable, Nina might have thought he was embarrassed.

20She reflected for a moment. “Someone has to do something.”

21Her mother chimed in. “Don’t get mixed up in things that are none of your business. And now go and change.”

22“Look, Nina, such things happen,” her father said soothingly. “People don’t know…”

23“They don’t know?” The bright summer’s day that had so suddenly become dark and sad for Nina grew light again.

24“Well, then, if they don’t know about it, then they’re not so bad. But we have to tell them.”

25Her father looked at her with a worried expression. “You have your work cut out for you, child.”

26“Go and change,” her mother repeated.

27Nina nodded and went, but she had no intention of changing. Beaten up and dirty, she ran back into the village in her torn dress. She would tell everybody what happened and everybody would be outraged and angry and the bad boys would be punished. If such things happened only because people did not know about them, it wouldn’t be difficult to set matters right. Someone just had to tell them. And she would do it.

28Her first stop was at the priest’s. Nina didn’t care for the young reverend who had come to the village after the good old priest died. He looked stern and mean. But he is a big man and everyone listens to him. The priest himself opened the door. Nina didn’t even wait for him to ask her in. Still standing in the corridor, she recounted to him what had happened. “Reverend Father,” she concluded, “you have to ex-com-muni-cate these boys!” And she thought of the Emperor Henry at Canossa, the subject of her last religious instruction period before the vacation. The priest wrinkled his forehead. “These things happen,” he said testily. “There’s no need to make such a fuss about a little Jew-boy.”

29Nina stared at him. Cold shivers suddenly ran down her back.

30“You… you know that such things… You really know?”

31“Naturally. There’s absolutely no reason for you to get so worked up.” Nina noticed that the priest no longer used the familiar “du” form with her, as he had in the past. He was speaking to her now as he would to an adult who had displeased him. Her little face turned pale and hard. “You have always known that such things happen — among us, in our village?”

32“I am busy right now. I have no time,” the priest replied.

33“No time! But that is like… like the people who passed by until the Good Samaritan came along.”

34The priest’s face became red with anger.

35“I will report you to your father,” he said and pushed Nina out the door.

36She walked on slowly. She felt as though someone had struck her a blow on the head. He knows about it, our priest knows about it, and he doesn’t do anything!

37She clenched her little hands into fists. He is a wicked man. He will go to hell. Or at least be sent to purgatory for a thousand years. And when he dies, I will not pray for his soul.

38Somewhat consoled by those thoughts, she went to the next house to tell the people what had happened. She went from one house where she knew the people to another. She pleaded, then she got angry, then desperate. She, who had always loved everyone, began to hate the people in the village. Everybody knew, it seemed, and no one did anything.

39The sun stood high in the heavens. The air shimmered from the heat. Nina dragged herself along, her weary feet sending up little clouds of fine dust. Now she had stopped at the home of everyone she knew. So many houses, she thought, so many people, and they all know, and no one does anything, no one. What kind of a world is this? Father was wrong about people not knowing. But father himself won’t do anything.

40She struggled slowly, very slowly homewards. They will still be sitting at their breakfast as though nothing has happened, she thought, utterly bewildered. And all mother could speak of was my dress. I don’t want to go home.

41All of a sudden, everything appeared strange to her. And then she had an insight. It was so terrible that she sank down on the edge of a ditch, as though she had been struck by a blow, and held her head in her hands. If that’s the way it is everywhere, all over the world, if injustice happens everywhere and everyone knows and no one does anything… no one…

42The sun shone brightly, spreading its warmth over the land; the sky was clear and blue; all around there was beauty and peace. At the edge of a ditch a little girl sat and stared into a black, impenetrable night of horror. Tears streamed down her cheeks as, full of despair and apprehension, she kept repeating amid sobs: “They all know about it, they all know about it.”

Bibliographie

“Man muß es ihnen sagen,” Arbeiter-Zeitung, Vienna, 12 December 1948, p. 5. For comment on this story, see Gossman, “The Red Countess: Four Stories,” Common Knowledge, 15 (2009), pp. 82–91.

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