The Hostile Brothers by Berthold Auerbach

Story type: Literature

Translator: Charles Goepp

In the little cold alley called the “Knee-Cap” is a little house, with a stable, a shed, and three windows glazed with paper. At the dormer-window a shutter dangles by one hinge, threatening every moment to fall. The patch of garden, small as it is, has a division-line of leafless thorns to cut it into two equal halves. The premises were inhabited by two brothers, who had been in constant warfare for fourteen years. As in the garden, so in the house, all things were partitioned into halves, from the attic down to the kennel of a cellar. The trap-door was open, but underneath the domain of each was enclosed in lattice-work and padlocked. All the other doors were likewise hung with locks, as if an attack of burglars was looked for every moment. The stable was the property of one brother, and the shed of another. Not a word was ever spoken in the house, unless when one of them cursed or swore for his own edification.

Mike and Conrad–such were their names–were both past the prime of life and alone in the world. Conrad’s wife had died early, and now he lived by himself; and Mike had never been married.

A blue chest, of the kind called “bench-chests,” was the first cause of the quarrel. After their mother’s death all the property should have been divided between them: their sister, who was married in the village, had received her share in advance. Conrad claimed the chest as having been bought by his own money, earned by breaking stones on the turnpike: he had only lent it to his mother, he said, and it belonged to him. Mike alleged, on the other hand, that Conrad had eaten his mother’s bread and therefore had no property of his own. After a violent altercation, the matter came before the squire, and then before the court; and it was finally decided that, as the brothers could not agree, every thing in the house, including the chest, should be sold and the proceeds divided. The house itself was put up at auction; but, as no purchaser was found, the brothers had nothing to do but to keep it.

They were now compelled to publicly buy their own chattels,–their bedding and other furniture. Conrad disliked this greatly. There are many things in every house which no stranger is rich enough to pay for, for there are associations connected with them which have no value for any one but the original possessor. Such things should descend quietly from generation to generation: this preserves their value unimpaired. But, when they must be torn from the hands of strangers by the force of money, a great part of their value is lost: they are thenceforth things purchased for coin, and have not the more sacred character of an inheritance. Thoughts like these often made Conrad shake his head when some old utensil was knocked down to him; and when the velvet-bound hymn-book of his mother, with the silver studs and buckles, came up, and a peddler weighed it in his hand to judge of the value of the silver, Conrad reddened up to his eyes. He bought it at a high price.

The box was sold last. Mike hemmed aloud, and looked at his brother in defiance: he bid a large sum. Conrad bid a florin more, without looking up, and pretended to count the buttons on his coat. Mike, looking saucily around, went still higher. None of the strangers present interfered, and the brothers were both determined not to give way. Each comforted himself with the thought that he would only have to pay half of what he bid, and so they continued to raise the price up to more than five times its real value,–when it was knocked down to Conrad for twenty-eight florins.

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Then he looked up for the first time, and his face was entirely changed. Spite and mockery leered out of his glaring eyes, his open mouth, and his protruding mien. “When you die, I’ll make you a present of the chest to lie in,” he said to Mike, trembling with rage: and those were the last words he had spoken to him for fourteen years.

The story of the chest was an excellent theme for fun and waggery in the village. Whenever anybody met Conrad, something was said about the mean way in which Mike had acted toward him; and Conrad talked himself into a rage against his brother, which increased with every word he said.

The brothers were of different dispositions in all things, and went their different ways. Conrad kept a cow, which he would yoke with the cow of his neighbor Christian to do field-work. When there was nothing to be done afield, he broke stones on the turnpike for fifteen creutzers, or about five cents, a day. He was very near-sighted. When he struck a flint to light his pipe, he always held his face very near the spunk, to see whether it was lit. All the village called him “blind Conrad.” He was short and thick-set.

Mike was the opposite of all this. He was tall and lank, and walked with a firm step. He dressed like a farmer, not because he was one, (for he was not,) but because it was of advantage to him in his business. He dealt in old horses; and people have great faith in a horse bought of a man who is dressed in farmers’ clothes. Mike was what is called in Germany a “spoiled blacksmith,”–one who had deserted his trade and lived by dickering. He rented out and sold his fields, and lived like a gentleman. He was a person of importance in the whole country round. In a circuit of twenty miles–in Wurtemberg, in Sigmaringen and Hechingen, and in Baden–he knew the condition and the muster of every stable just as accurately as a great statesman knows the statistics of foreign states and the position of cabinets; and, as the latter sounds the state of public feeling in the newspapers, so did Mike in the taverns. In every village he had a scapegrace as minister-resident, with whom he often held secret conferences, and who, in cases of importance, would send him couriers,–to wit, themselves,–asking nothing but a good drink-money, in the strict sense of the word. Besides these, he had secret agents who would incite people to revolutions in their stables; and thus his shed, which served the purpose of a stable, was generally tenanted by some broken-down hack in the course of preparation for publicity,– i.e. for sale on market-day. He would dye the hair over its eyes and file its teeth; and, though the poor beast was thereby disabled from eating any thing but bran, and must starve on any thing else, he cared little, for at the next market he was sure to sell it again.

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He had some curious tricks of the trade. Sometimes he instructed an understrapper to pretend to be making a trade with him. They would become very noisy, and at last Mike would say, in a very loud tone of voice, “I can’t trade. I’ve no feed and no stabling; and, if I must give the horse away for a ducat, away he must go.” Or he would pay some stupid farmer’s lout to ride the horse up and down, and then observe, “If a man had that horse that knew what to do with it he might make something out of it. The build is capital: the bones are English. If he had a little flesh he would be worth his twenty ducats.” If a purchaser turned up, he would undertake to get him the horse, stipulating a commission for himself for the sale of his own property. What he hated most was a warranty: rather than sign that he always agreed to throw off a ducat or two. Nevertheless, he had many a lawsuit, which eat up the horse and the profit; but the unsettled life he led had such a charm that he could not think of leaving it, and he always hoped that the profit on one speculation would compensate for the losses on another. His principle was never to leave the market without a bargain. The Jews of the markets were also his accomplices, and he would return their favors in kind.

Sometimes, in riding out on these excursions, or in coming home, he would pass his brother breaking stones on the road. He would look at him half in pity and half in contempt, saying to himself, “This poor devil works from morning to night for fifteen creutzers; and, if I have any luck, I clear fifteen florins.”

Conrad, seeing a little of these thoughts in spite of his nearsightedness, would strike the stones until a thousand splinters flew on every side.

We shall see hereafter whether Mike or Conrad did better in the end.

Mike was what is called “good company.” He could tell stories day and night, knew a thousand tricks, and was acquainted, as the German proverb has it, with God and the world. Not that his acquaintance with God was very intimate,–though he went to church now and then, as no one in the country can avoid doing; but he went, like many others, without thinking much about what he heard there, or endeavoring to act accordingly.

Conrad also had his faults, among which perhaps the greatest was his hatred of his brother and the manner in which he expressed it. When asked, “How’s Mike comin’ on?” he would answer, “He’ll come to this some day,” passing his hands under his chin as if to tie a knot, and then lifting them up and stretching out his tongue. Of course people were not chary in putting the question; and, whenever the standing answer came, it was the signal for peals of merriment. In other ways, also, people would try to keep the hatred of the brothers at the boiling-point, not so much from malice as for fun. Mike never did more than shrug his shoulders contemptuously when the “poor devil” was mentioned.

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They never remained in the same room. When they met at the inn, or at their sister’s, one of them always went away. No one ever thought of making peace between them; and whenever people lived at daggers’ points it became proverbial to say, “They live like Mike and Conrad.”

When they met at home they never spoke a word, nor even looked at each other. Yet, when one perceived that the other was lying ill in bed, he would go all the way to their sister’s, who lived away off in Frog Alley, and say, “Go up: I guess he’s poorly:” and then he would make as little noise as possible while he worked, so as not to disturb the other.

Out of doors, however, and among the neighbors, they kept up their feud without blinking; and no one would have thought of finding a spark of brotherly love in their hearts.

This had now lasted wellnigh fourteen years. Mike, with his traffic and dickering, had let the money received for his two acres slip through his fingers,–he scarce knew how. Conrad, on the contrary, had bought another field from an emigrant, and very nearly paid for it. Mike did a commission-business, and thought of selling another field to set himself afloat again.

“Now, there arose up a new king over Egypt,” is a verse of which the people of the village might have made a peculiar application. The old parson was dead. He was a good man, but let things go their own way. The new parson was a young man of great zeal. He was bent upon righting all things, and did accomplish a great deal, until at last he got into a declared connection with Lisa, the Lamb Innkeeper’s daughter; after which he ceased to meddle with people’s private affairs,–for then he might have been told to sweep at his own door. But as yet he was in the full tide of reform.

One Sunday afternoon, when church was over, people sat about on the lumber brought for the new engine-house which was to be built near the town-house well. Mike was there too, sitting with his elbows on his knees and chewing a straw. Peter, Shackerle’s John’s boy, who was only five years old, was passing. Somebody cried, “Peter, I’ll give you a handful of nuts if you’ll do like Conrad: how does Conrad do?” The child shook his head, and was going on, for he was afraid of Mike; but they held him fast, and teased him till at last he did the tying of the knot, the pulling up, and the stretching out of the tongue. The shouts of laughter could have been heard through half the village. The boy called for his nuts, but the contractor was found unable to furnish them; so Peter kicked at him,–which made them all laugh again.

The new parson, who chanced to be coming down the little hill at the town-house, had stopped to see the whole transaction. When the boy was on the point of being pummelled for his indignant dunning, the parson stepped up quickly and took the boy away. The farmers all arose in great haste and pulled off their caps. The parson walked on, taking with him the image-keeper, who happened to be among the crowd. From him he heard the story of the feud between the brothers.

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Next Saturday, as Conrad was breaking stones in the village, he was summoned to meet the parson next morning after church. He looked astonished: his pipe went out, and for two seconds the stone under his plank-soled foot remained unbroken. He was at a loss to think what could have happened at the parsonage, and would rather have gone there at once.

Mike received the same invitation as he was “greasing his old nag’s Sunday boots,”–as he termed getting up his hoof’s for market. He whistled a naughty tune, but stopped in the middle of it, for he well knew what was coming. He was glad of the chance to prepare himself for a good counter-sermon, a few sentences of which he already mumbled between his teeth.

On Sunday morning the parson took for his text, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm cxxxii. 1.) He showed that all the happiness and joy of earth is void and vapid if not shared between those who have slept in the same mother’s womb; he said that parents can neither be happy here nor at peace hereafter if their children are sundered by hatred, envy, or malice; he referred to Cain and Abel, and spoke of fratricide as the first venomous fruit of the fall. All this was uttered in a full, resounding voice, of which the farmers said, “It pries the walls apart.” Alas! it is often almost easier to move stone walls than to soften the hard heart of man. Barbara wept bitter tears over the evil ways of her brothers; and, although the parson declared again and again that he did not allude to any one in particular, but desired one and all to lay their hands on their hearts and ask themselves whether the true love for their kindred was in them, yet every one was content to think, “That’s for Mike and Conrad: the shoe fits them exactly.”

The two latter stood near each other, Mike chewing his cap, which he held between his teeth, and Conrad listening with open mouth. Once their eyes met, and then Mike dropped his cap and stooped down quickly to pick it up.

The hymn at the close had a calm, pacifying influence; but, before the last sounds had died away, Mike was out of the church, and knocked at the door of the parsonage. Finding it locked, he went into the garden. He stood before the beehives, and watched their restless labor.

“They never know when Sunday comes.”

And he thought, “I have no Sunday either, with my traffic; but then I have no real working-day.” Again he thought how many hundred brothers lived together in a beehive, all working like the old folks. He did not dwell upon such reflections, however. He made up his mind that the parson should not bridle him; and when he looked at the graveyard he remembered the last words of Conrad, and his hand clenched.

In the parsonage he found the parson and Conrad in earnest conversation. The parson appeared to have given up the expectation of his coming. He offered him a chair; but Michael answered, pointing to his brother,–

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“No offence to your reverence, but I never sit down where he is. Your reverence hasn’t been long in the village yet, and don’t know his tricks. He is a hypocritical doughface, but false and underhanded. All the children imitate him,” he continued, gnashing his teeth: “‘How’s Mike coming on?’” and here he gave the well-known pantomime again. “Your reverence,” he went on, trembling with rage, “he is the cause of all my mishap: he has ruined my peace at home, and so I have sold myself to the devil for horses. You’ve prophesied it, you bloodhound!” he roared at his brother: “I’ll hang myself with a halter yet, but your turn shall come first.”

The parson gave the brothers time to vent their wrath, only exerting his dignity so far as to prevent personal violence. He knew that after their anger was poured out love must appear also; yet he was half deceived.

At last the two brothers sat motionless and speechless, though breathing hard. Then the parson began to speak words of kindness: he opened all the secret corners of the heart, but in vain; they both looked at the floor. He depicted the sufferings of their dead parents: Conrad sighed, but did not look up. The parson gathered up all his powers; his voice surged like that of an avenging prophet; he told them how after death they would appear before the Lord’s judgment-seat, and how the Lord would cry, “Woe be unto you, ye hardened of heart! Ye have lived in hatred, ye have withheld the grasp of a brother’s hand from each other: go, and suffer the torments of hell, riveted together!”

There was silence. Conrad wiped his eyes with his sleeve, got up from his chair, and said, “Mike!”

The sound had been so long unheard that Mike started and looked up. Conrad went up to him and said, “Mike, forgive me.” The hands of the brothers were firmly clasped, and the hand of the parson seemed to shed a blessing on them both.

All the village rejoiced when Mike and Conrad were seen coming down the little hill by the town-house, hand in hand.

They did not relinquish their grasp until they had reached home: it was as if they desired to make up for the long privation. But here they hastened to tear off the padlocks; then, going into the garden, they tore away the dividing hedge, heedless of the cabbage destroyed in the operation.

Then they went to their sister’s, and sat side by side at the dinner-table.

In the afternoon they sat in church together, each holding one side of their mother’s hymn-book.

They lived in harmony from that day forth.

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