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Title: Uncle Christian's Inheritance
Author: Erckmann-Chatrian
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605681.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Uncle Christian's Inheritance

When my excellent uncle Christian Has, burgomaster of Lauterbach,
died, I had a good situation as matre de chapelle, or precentor,
under the Grand Duke Yen Peter, with a salary of fifteen hundred
florins, notwithstanding which I was a poor man still.

Uncle Christian knew exactly how I was situated, and yet had never
sent me a kreutzer. So when I learned that he had left me owner of two
hundred acres of rich land in orchards and vineyards, a good bit of
woodland, and his large house at Lauterbach, I could not help shedding
tears of gratitude.

"My dear uncle," I cried, "now I can appreciate the depth of your
wisdom, and I thank you most sincerely for your judicious
illiberality. Where would now the money be, supposing you had sent me
anything? In the hands of the Philistines, no doubt; whereas by your
prudent delays you have saved the country, like another Fabius
Cunctator--'Qui cunctando restituit rem--' I honour your memory, Uncle
Christian! I do indeed!"

Having delivered myself of these deep feelings, and many more which I
cannot enter into now, I got on horseback and rode off to Lauterbach.

Strange, is it not, how the Spirit of Avarice, hitherto quite a
stranger to me, came to make my acquaintance?

"Caspar!" he whispered, "now you are a rich man! Hitherto vain shadows
have filled your mind. A man must be a fool to follow glory. There is
nothing solid but acres, and buildings, and crown-pieces, put out in
safe mortgages. Fling aside all your vain delusions! Enlarge your
boundaries, round off your estate, heap up money, and then you will be
honoured and respected! You will be a burgomaster as your uncle was
before you, and the country folks, when they see you coming a mile
off, will pull off their hats, and say--'Here is Monsieur Caspar Has,
the richest man and the biggest herr in the country.'"

These notions kept passing and repassing in my mind like the figures
in a magic-lantern, with grave and measured step. The whole thing
seemed to me perfectly reasonable.

It was the middle of July. The lark was warbling in the sky. The crops
were waving in the plain, the gentle breezes carried on them the soft
cry of the quail and the partridge amongst the standing wheat; the
foliage was glancing in the sunshine, and the Lauter ran its course
beneath the willows; but what was all that to me, the great
burgomaster? I puffed up my cheeks and rounded off my figure in
anticipation of the portly appearance I was to present, and repeated
to myself those delightful observations--

"This is Monsieur Caspar Has; he is a very rich man! he is the first
herr in the country! Get on, Blitz!"

And the nag trotted forward.

I was anxious to try on my uncle's three-cornered hat and scarlet
waistcoat. "If they fit me," I said, "what is the use of buying?"

About four in the afternoon the village of Lauterbach appeared at the
end of the valley, and very proud I felt as I surveyed the tall and
handsome house of the late Christian Has, my future abode, the centre
of my property, real and speculative. I admired its situation by the
long dusty road, its vast roof of grey shingle, the sheds and barns
covering with their broad expanse the waggons, the carts, and the
crops; behind, the poultry-yard, then the little garden, the orchard,
the vineyards up the hill, the green meadows farther off.

I chuckled with delight over all these comforts and luxuries.

As I went down the principal street the old women with nose and chin
nearly meeting at the extremity, the bare-pated children with ragged
hair, the men in their otter-skin caps, and silver-chained pipes in
their mouths, all gaze upon me, and respectfully salute me--

"Good day, Monsieur Caspar! How do you do, Monsieur Has?"

And all the small windows were filled with wondering faces. I am at
home now; I seem as if I had always been a great landowner at
Lauterbach, and a notable. My kapellmeister's life seems a dream, a
thing of the past, my enthusiastic fondness for music a youthful
folly! How money does modify men's views of things!

And now I draw bridle before the house of the village notary, Monsieur
Becker. He has my title-deeds under his care, and is to hand them over
to me. I fasten my horse to the ring at the door. I run up the steps,
and the ancient scribe, with his bald head very respectfully
uncovered, and his long spare figure clad in a green dressing-gown
with full skirts, advances alone to receive me.

"Monsieur Caspar Has, I have the honour to salute you."

"Your servant, Monsieur Becker."

"Pray walk in, Monsieur Has."

"After you, sir, after you."

We cross the vestibule, and I find at the end of a small, neat, and
well-aired room a table nicely and comfortably laid, and sitting by it
a young maiden rosy and fresh-coloured, the very picture of modesty
and propriety.

The venerable notary announced me---"Monsieur Caspar Has!"

I bowed.

"My daughter Lothe!" added the good man.

And whilst I felt in myself a reviving taste for the beautiful, and
was admiring Mademoiselle Lothe's pretty little chubby nose, the rosy
lips, and the large blue eyes, her dainty little figure, and her
dimpled hands, Matre Becker invited me to sit down at the table,
informing me that he had been expecting me, and that before entering
on matters of business it would be well to take a little refreshment,
a glass of Bordeaux, an invitation of which I fully recognised the
propriety, and which I accepted very willingly.

And so we sit down. We talk first of the beautiful country. And I form
opinions about the old gentleman, and wonder what a notary is likely
to make at Lauterbach!

"Mademoiselle, will you take a wing?"

"Monsieur, you are very kind; thank you, I will."

Lothe looks down bashfully. I fill her glass, in which she dips her
rosy lips. Papa is in good spirits; he tells me about hunting and

"Of course Monsieur Has will live as we do in the country. We have
excellent rabbit-warrens. The rivers abound in trout. The shooting in
the forests is let out. People mostly spend their evenings at the inn.
Monsieur the inspector of woods and forests is a delightful young man.
The juge-de-paix is a capital whist-player," and so on, and so on.

I listen, and think all this quiet life must be delightful.
Mademoiselle Lothe pleases me a good deal. She does not talk much, but
she smiles and looks so agreeable! How loving and amiable she must be!

At last the coffee came, then the kirschwasser. Mademoiselle Lothe
retires, and the old lawyer gradually passes to business. He explains
to me the nature of my uncle's property, and I listen attentively.
There was no part of the will in dispute; there were no legacies, no

Everything is clear and straightforward. Happy Caspar! Happy man!

Then we went into the office to look over the deeds. The close air of
this place of dry, hard business, those long rows of boxes, the files
of bills--all these together put weak notions of love out of my head.
I sat down in an armchair while Monsieur Becker, collecting his
thoughts, puts his horn spectacles in their place upon his long, sharp

"These deeds relate to your meadow-land at Eichmatt. There, Monsieur
Has, you have a hundred acres of excellent land, the finest and best-
watered in the commune; two and even three crops a year are got off
that land. It brings in four thousand francs a year. Here are the
deeds belonging to your vine-growing land at Sonnenthl, thirty-five
acres in all. One year with another you may get from this two hundred
hectolitres (4,400 gals.) of light wine, sold on the ground at twelve
or fifteen francs the hectolitre. Good years make up for the bad.
This, Monsieur Has, is your title to the forest of Romelstein,
containing fifty or sixty hectares (a hectare is 2  acres) of
excellent timber. This is your property at Hacmatt; this your pasture-
land at Tiefenthal. This is your farm at Grneswald, and here is the
deed belonging to your house at Lauterbach; it is the largest house in
the place, and was built in the sixteenth century."

"Indeed, Monsieur Becker! but is that saying much in its favour?"

"Certainly, certainly. It was built by Jean Burckhardt, Count of
Barth, for a hunting-box. Many generations have lived in it since
then, but it has never been neglected, and it is now in excellent

I thanked Monsieur Becker for the information he had given me, and
having secured all my title-deeds in a large portfolio which he was
good enough to lend me, I took my leave, more full than ever of my
vast importance!

Arriving before my house, I enjoyed introducing the key into the lock
of the door, and bringing down my foot firmly and proudly on the first

"This is all mine!" I cried enthusiastically.

I enter the hall--"Mine!" I open the wardrobes--"Mine!" Mine--all that
linen piled up to the top! I pace majestically up the broad staircase,
repeating like a fool, "This is mine, and that is mine! Here I am,
owner of all this! No more uneasiness about the future! Not an anxious
thought for the morrow! Now I am going to make a figure in the
world!--not on the weak ground of merit--not for anything that fashion
can alter. I am a great man because I hold really and effectually that
which the world covets.

"Ye poets and artists! what are you in comparison with the rich
proprietor who has everything he wants, and who feeds your inspiration
with the crumbs that fall from his table? What are you but ornamental
portions of his feasts and banquets, just to fill up a weary interval?
You are no more than the sparrow that warbles in his hedges, or the
statue that figures in his garden-walk. It is by him and for him that
you exist. What need has he to envy you the incense of pride and
vanity--he who possesses the only solid good this world has to offer?"

At that moment of inflated conceit if the poor Kapellmeister Has had
appeared before me I might very likely have turned and looked at him
over my shoulder and asked, "What fool is that? What business has he
with me?".I threw a window open; evening was closing in. The setting
sun gilded my orchards and my vines as far as I could see. On the
declivity of the hill a few white patches indicated the cemetery.

I turned round. A great Gothic hall, with rich mouldings decorating
the ceiling, pleased my taste exceedingly. This was the Seigneur
Burckhardt's hunting-saloon.

An old spinet stood between two windows; I ran my fingers absently
over the keys, and the loose strings jingled with the disagreeable
squeaking of a toothless old woman trying to sing like a young damsel.

At the end of this long apartment was an arched alcove closed in by
deep red curtains, and containing a lofty four-post bedstead with a
kind of grand baldacchino covering it in. The sight of this reminded
me that I had been six hours on horseback, and undressing with a self-
satisfied smirk on my face all the time--

"It is the first time," I said, "that I shall sleep in a bed of my

And laying myself comfortably down, with my eyes dreamily wandering
over the distant plains on which the shadows of evening were settling
down, I felt my eyelids gently yielding to the sweet influence of
sleep. Not a leaf was stirring; the village noises ceased one by one,
the last golden rays of the sun had disappeared, and I dropped into
the unconsciousness of welcome sleep.

Dark night fell on the face of the earth, and then the moon was rising
in all her splendour, when I awoke, I cannot tell why. The wandering
scents of summer air reached me through the open window, fragrant with
the sweet perfume of the new-mown hay. I gazed with surprise, then I
made an effort to rise and open the window, but some obstacle
prevented me. To my astonishment, though my head was perfectly free to
move in any direction, my body was buried in a deep sleep like a lump
of lead. Not a single muscle obeyed my repeated efforts to raise my
body; I was conscious of my arms lying extended near me, and my legs
being stretched out straight and immovable; but my head was swaying
helplessly to and fro. My breathing, deep and regular--the breathing
of my body went on all the same, and frightened me dreadfully. My
head, exhausted with its vain efforts to obtain obedience from the
limbs, fell back in despair, and I said, "What! is it paralysis?"

My eyes closed. I was reflecting with a feeling of horror upon this
strange phenomenon, and my ears were listening intently to the
agitated beating of my heart, over whose hurried flow of blood the
mind had no power.

"What, what is this?" I thought presently. "Do my own body and limbs
refuse to obey my will? Cannot Caspar Has, the undisputed lord of so
many rich vineyards and fat pastures, move this wretched clod of earth
which most certainly belongs to him? Oh, what does it all mean?"

As I was thus wondering and meditating I heard a slight noise. The
door of my alcove opened, and a man clothed in some stiff material
resembling felt, such as is worn by the monks in the chapel of St.
Werburgh at Mayence, with a broad-brimmed hat and feather pushed off
from the left ear, his hands buried up to the elbows in gauntlets of
strong untanned leather, entered the room. This gentleman's huge jack-
boots came over the knees, and were folded down again. A heavy chain
of gold, with decorations suspended to it, hung from his shoulders.
His tanned and angular countenance, his sallow complexion, his hollow
eyes, bore an expression of bitterness and melancholy.

This dismal personage traversed the hall with a hard and sounding step
as measured as the ticking of a clock, and placing his skinny hand
upon the hilt of an immense long rapier, and stamping with his heel on
the floor, he uttered in a horribly disagreeable creaking voice
resembling the grating of an engine these words, which dropped in a
dry mechanical fashion from his ashy lips:--

"This is mine--mine--Hans Burckhardt, Count of Barth!"

I felt a creeping sensation coming all over me.

At the same instant the door opposite flew open wide, and the Count of
Barth disappeared in the next apartment; and I could hear his hard,
dry automatic tread upon the stairs descending the steps, one by one,
for a long time; there seemed no end to it, until at last the awful
sounds died in the remote distance as if they had descended into the
bowels of the earth.

But as I was still listening, and hearing nothing further, all in a
moment the vast hall filled as if by magic with a numerous company;
the spinet began to jingle; there was music and singing of love, and
pleasure, and wine.

I gazed and saw by the bluish-grey moonlight ladies in the bloom of
youth negligently floating over the floor, and chiefly about the old
spinet; elegant cavaliers attired, as in the olden time, in
innumerable dangling ribbons, and the very perfection of lace collars
and ruffles, seated cross-legged upon gold-fringed stools, affectedly
inclining sidelong, shaking their perfumed locks, making little bows,
studying all kinds of graceful attitudes, and paying their court to
the ladies, all so elegantly, and with such an air of gallantry, that
it reminded me of the old mezzotint engravings of the graceful school
of Lorraine in the sixteenth century.

And the stiff little fingers of an ancient dowager, with a parrot
bill, were rattling the keys of the old spinet; bursts of thin
laughter set discordant echoes flying, and ended in little squeaks
with such a sharp discordant rattle of constrained laughter as made my
hair stand on end.

All this silly little world--all this quintessence of fashion and
elegance, long out of date, all exhaled the acrid odour of rose-water
and essence of mignonette turned into vinegar.

I made new and superhuman exertions to get rid of this disagreeable
nightmare, but it was all in vain. But at that instant a lady of the
highest fashion cried aloud--

"Lords, you are at home here in all this domain--"

But she was cut short in her compliments; a silence like death fell on
the whole assembly. They faded away. I looked, and the whole picture
had vanished from my sight.

Then the sound of a trumpet fell on my listening ears. Horses were
pawing the ground outside, dogs were barking, while the moon, calm,
clear, inviting to meditation, still poured her soft light into my

The door opened as if by a blast of wind, and fifty huntsmen, followed
by a company of young ladies attired as they were two centuries ago,
in long trains, defiled with majestic pace out of one chamber into the
other. Four serving-men passed amongst them, bearing on their brawny
shoulders on a stout litter of oak boughs the bloody carcass of a
monstrous wild boar, with dim and faded eye, and with the foam yet
lying white on his formidable tusks and grisly jaws.

Then I heard the flourishes of the brazen trumpets redoubled in
loudness and energy; but silence fell, and the pomp and dignity passed
away with a sigh like the last moans of a storm in the woods; then--
nothing at all--nothing to hear--nothing to see!

As I lay dreaming over this strange vision, and my eyes wandering
vaguely over the empty space in the silent darkness, I observed with
astonishment the blank space becoming silently occupied by one of the
old Protestant families of former days, calm, solemn, and dignified in
their bearing and conversation.

There sat the white-haired patriarch with the big Bible upon his
knees; the aged mother, tall and pale, spinning the flax grown by
themselves, sitting as straight and immovable as her own distaff, her
ruff up to her ears, her long waist compressed in a stiff black
bodice; then there sat the fat and rosy children, with serious
countenances and thoughtful blue eyes, leaning in silence with their
elbows on the table; the dog lay stretched by the great hearth
apparently listening to the reading; the old clock stood in the corner
ticking seconds; farther on in the shadow were girls' faces and young
men, talking seriously to them about Jacob and Rachel by way of love-

And this good family seemed penetrated with the truth of the sacred
story; the old man in broken accents was reading aloud the edifying
history of the settlement of the children of Israel in the Land of

"This is the Land of Promise--the land promised to Abraham and Isaac
and Jacob your fathers--that you may be multiplied in it as the stars
of heaven for multitude, and as the sand which is upon the seashore.
And none shall disturb you, for ye are the chosen people."

The moon, which had veiled her light for a few minutes, reappeared,
and hearing no more sounds of voices, I looked round, and her clear
cold rays fell in the great empty hall. Not a figure, not a shade, was
left. The moonlight poured its silver flood upon the floor, and in the
distance the forms of a few trees stood out against the dark purple

But now suddenly the high walls appeared lined with books, the old
spinet gave way to the secrtaire of some man of learning, whose full-
bottomed wig was peering above the back of a red-leather arm-chair. I
could hear the quill coursing over the paper. The learned man, buried
in thought, never moved; the silence was oppressive.

But fancy my astonishment when, slowly turning, the great scholar
faced me, and I recognised the portrait of the famous lawyer
Gregorius, marked No. 253 in the portrait-gallery at Darmstadt.

How on earth had this personage walked out of his grave? I was asking
myself this question when, in a hollow sepulchral voice, he pronounced
these words:--

"Dominorum, ex jur Quintio, est jus utendi et abutendi quatenus
naturalis ratio patitur."

As this sapient precept dropped oracularly from his lips, a word at a
time, his figure faded and turned pale. With the last word he had
passed out of existence.

What more shall I tell you, my dear friends? For hours, twenty
generations came defiling past me in Hans Burckhardt's ancient
mansion--Christians and Jews, nobles and commoners, fools and wise men
of high art, and men of mere prose. Every one proclaimed his
indefeasible right to the property; every one firmly believed himself
sole lord and master of all he surveyed. Alas!

Death breathed upon one after another, and they were all carried out,
each as his turn came!

I was beginning to be familiar with this strange phantasmagoria. Each
time that any of these honest folks turned round and declared to me,
"This is mine!" I laughed and said, "Wait a bit, my fine fellow!--you
will melt away just like the rest!"

At last I began to feel tired of it, when far away--very far--the cock
crowed, announcing the dawn of day. His piercing call began to rouse
the sleeper. The leaves rustled with the morning air; a slight shiver
shook my frame; I felt my limbs gradually regaining their freedom,
and, resting upon my elbow, I gazed with rapture upon the silent wide-
spread land. But what I saw presently did not tend to exalt my

Along the little winding path to the cemetery were moving, in solemn
procession, all the ghosts that had visited me in the night. Step by
step they approached the decaying moss-grown door of the sacred
inclosure; that silent, mournful march of spectres under the dim grey
light of early morning was a gaunt and fearful sight.

And as I lay, more dead than alive, with gaping mouth and my face wet
with cold perspiration, the head of the dismal line melted and
disappeared among the weeping willows.

There were not many spectres left, and I was beginning to feel a
little more composed, when the very last, my uncle Christian himself,
turned round to me under the mossy gate and beckoned me to follow! A
distant faint ironical voice said--

"Caspar! Caspar! come! Six feet of this ground belong to you!"

Then he too disappeared.

A streak of crimson and purple stretched across the eastern sky
announced the coming day.

I need not tell you that I did not accept my uncle Christian's
invitation, though I am quite aware that a similar call will one day
arrive from One who must be obeyed. The remembrance of my brief abode
at Burckhardt's fort has wonderfully brought down the great opinion I
had once formed of my own importance, for the vision of that night
taught me that though orchards and meadows may not pass away their
owners do, and this fact compels to serious reflection upon the nature
of our duties and responsibilities.

I therefore wisely resolved not to risk the loss of manly energy and
of the best prizes of life by tarrying at that Capua, but to betake
myself, without further loss of time, to the pursuit of music as a
science, and I hope to produce next year, at the Royal Theatre of
Berlin, an opera which, I hope, will disarm all criticism at once.

I have come to the final conclusion that glory and renown, which
speculative people speak of as if they were mere smoke, is, after all,
the most enduring good. Life and a noble reputation do not depart
together; on the contrary, death confirms well-deserved glory and adds
to it a brighter lustre.

Suppose, for instance, that Homer returned to life, no one would
dispute with him his claim to be the author of the Iliad, and each
would vie with the rest to do honour to the father of epic poetry. But
if peradventure some rich landowner of that day came back to assert a
claim to the fields, the woods, the pastures of which he used to be so
proud, ten to one he would be received like a thief and perhaps die a
miserable death.


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