‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’) by Ricarda Huch – Part Four

FOUR

The 13th of July was a hot but pleasant day, which enabled the Children of God to throng the streets singing, dressed in the lightest of garments, the women with their hair let down, which would have made for a charming sight had the ominous circumstances allowed for such thoughts.  Many who had up to this point mocked the whole affair now mingled with the devout at the very last minute and attempted, through the vigour of their pious activities, to make up for what these had lacked in duration.  As I took my customary walk on the beach at twilight, I found them all kneeling and praying in the soft sand, where they presumably believed they would endure the catastrophe in a more pleasant manner than in the town, where the houses would undoubtedly cave in on one’s head.  Leading this prayer and song were the Fur King and the Ducat-Man, who had seated themselves atop two large rocks in the sea at a place where the shore was flat and whence their booming voices echoed out over the water. In passing, I asked them whether they intended to take a dip in the pleasant evening coolness, at which the Fur King mildly invited me to adorn myself in wedding attire and fill my lamp with oil lest, when the bridegroom arrived, I should be left standing before him as a foolish maiden.

As by this time the hour at which the pernicious comet was to appear had arrived, I made my way up to the roof terrace of my house to observe it, and it was indeed visible as a twinkling reddish star trailing a graceful collection of rays behind it, like a bird of paradise, among the usual stars.  Gradually, all the stars gently took their positions; against the silent eye of the night the cool air began to stir, and the dreamlike song of the waves could be heard.  From the distant park could be heard now and then the wild, boisterous cries of the Worldly Ones, whose dances around the golden idol were more frenzied than ever.

While I followed the path of the comet, lost in thought, with my mind’s eye I pictured the wheel of time in the sky, half invisible, half shining and transparent, as it slowly turned its gigantic rotations through eternity.  What if, I thought, an almighty hand were suddenly to grip those colossal spokes, which turn so quickly and powerfully at the centre of infinity, and the storm arising from such a motion forced the planets, suns and moons from their orbits?  If the wheel suddenly stopped and the heavenly bodies flickered out and collapsed with the last terrible twitches of life into the black expanses of space!  But it continued to turn slowly, slowly onwards through the blue clouds, onwards through the sky’s dark wasteland, after the constellations had faded, and through the chilly grey of the morning that followed the brief summer night.  At this point, I took myself off to bed and from great exhaustion immediately fell asleep.

Loud cries and bangs, somewhere around ten in the morning it must have been, roused me from my sleep, and as I, not wanting to show myself to people in my night attire, looked out through the peephole in my door, I espied a horde of furious men brandishing staves and axes and threatening me.  On seeing the Fur King and the Ducat-Man amongst the leaders, it wasn’t difficult to work out that now that the end of the world had failed to materialise, they had given the mandrake root a try and discovered that its innocent nature meant there was never any chance of their appeals and oaths to Satan leading anywhere.  In spite of the men’s blood-thirsty countenances, I plucked up my courage and addressed them politely, saying it pleased me to be able to announce that the ominous star had come and gone without causing any harm, so that our Earth could continue its passage in God’s name, on which we, as its inhabitants, should rightly congratulate ourselves.  However, this speech would have done little to help me if it hadn’t occurred to one of the raging group to name Old Misery Guts as the one who had instigated the whole affair.

At once they were all in accord, and the mob rushed from my house with such resounding cries of revenge that I, fearing for the safety of my dear friend, dressed as quickly as possible and rushed off after the savages, although I had no real idea what I might do to protect him by myself.  Along the way I did manage to win over several men who promised to support me, but this caused a fateful delay; by the time we arrived at the house of the unfortunate philanthropist, his spirit had already been released from his body by the axe blows of the murderous mob.  From bystanders I learned that on hearing the yells of the angry men, he had hurried to his front door, addressed them as “dear friends” and “Children of God”, and asked them not to make so much noise as his daughter was sleeping.  In reply they called him a rogue, a crook and a villain, and a cry rang out: “Now we really are in Heaven!  You’ve made beggars of us all!  Give us our money back, or end the world right now!”, and when he attempted a faint response, they raged and cursed even harder, striking down and killing the defenceless old man with a needless excess of rage and force.

With no-one daring to stand in their way, the bloody horde moved on to the park where the golden calf stood, intending to retrieve as many of their lost riches as they were able.  Yet for all the blows their axes inflicted on the beast, they managed nothing more than to put a few scratches and dents in its smooth body, for which reason they lit a fire to melt the golden colossus.  However, having done so, it soon turned out that the idol consisted of a lead core covered with the merest layer of gold leaf, which seemed to be the sole remainder of the formidable treasure.  Unable to take revenge on the sculptor, who shortly after completing his work had calmly left the town, the disappointed men could think of nothing better to do with their anger than to tear into each other, with each accusing another of starting the whole affair and setting the whole idiotic scheme for sacrificing their wealth in motion.  In almost every family there had been someone, whether that be a husband, wife or child, who had spoken against the idea, and thus it came to pass that family members now seized each other by the throat and with screams of triumph and revenge attempted to finish each other off.

They would, in all likelihood, have all killed one another, had not those level-headed men who had had nothing to do with the end of the world now assembled, formed a new government and taken public affairs skilfully and swiftly in hand.  First of all, the murderers and ringleaders were taken into custody to prevent them from causing any further damage; the Pleasure-Seeker received severe admonishment for his improper conduct over the past few months; by contrast, the poor murder victim was provided with a Christian burial, which modest and solemn affair was promptly carried out.  Almost every day, in the cool of the evening, you can still see the chattering Vikus and the lame, smiling Vika go off together hand in hand to visit the unfortunate soul’s grave.

Those involved in old Wolke’s murder, there were nine of them in all, amongst them the Fur King and the Ducat-Man, were, after a short trial, sentenced to death.  For the occasion, at great cost and effort, the golden calf was dragged to the execution grounds, which lay beyond the town walls, and was positioned in their centre, with the nine gallows on which the guilty men were to be hanged surrounding it; in this way, said the new counsellors, when the ladder was pulled from under their feet, the men could perform one last dance around their idol.  The sentence was immediately carried out on those impenitent sinners, with the fortunate consequences that from then on, nobody dared to air any grievances and that those who had in this time of unrest risen from their earlier obscurity to comfortable prosperity were able to enjoy their fortune in peace.

The bodies of the hanged men, by order of the council, were left hanging from the gallows as a deterrent, and superstitious folk claim that on stormy nights, with the whistling of the wind and the rattling of the bones, the skeletons can be seen dancing a merry jig around the gleaming idol.

THE END

*****

← Part Three     Translator’s Afterword →

Translation © 2019 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’) by Ricarda Huch – Part Four

  1. Very pleased to come upon this great Ricarda Huch translation. I’ll be looking forward to read related posts.
    Where I grew up, south of Munich, I spent the occasional holiday week at a run down farm near us belonging to an eccentric relative of Ricarda Huch. In my room were stored large wooden boxes, levered open, stuffed with books that once belonged to Ricarda. I once wrote a poem about this time, which is on my blog. Just found it … https://courseofmirrors.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/2255/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. CourseofMirrors – Prior to this, I’d only read ‘Der letzte Sommer’, mainly because Peirene published an English-language version. I do wonder if more of her work will become available in English at some point…

      Liked by 1 person

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