Neighbor Hans


I AM an easy-going sort of a man, and in my wanderings up and down the earth, I have had many dealings with people of many kinds and very little trouble with any of them. I had long been familiar with what it means to live in a community of mixed nationalities, and have tried it as successfully in Guiana, Venezuela, and Mexico as in New York City. So I hope that the reader will not ascribe too much of the fault to me when I recount my adventures with the emigrants of another country, which took place while I was employed as manager of a large plantation in southern Mexico.

On assuming control of this enterprise, I found myself in a sparsely settled territory, where, within a radius of ninety miles, some twenty-five Americans, and a like number of Germans, were engaged in developing a rich but wild country.

That the neighborhood should be half German seemed to me of good augury, for I had always found Germans excellent citizens of the country to which they had emigrated; and in the United States I had been accustomed to regard them as an important and reliable element of our citizenship. But I reckoned without due discrimination. The Germans I had known elsewhere were solid bourgeois — simple-minded, straightforward, and hardworking. My new neighbors, on the other hand, were Junker-born. Most of them were university men of the military caste. Their point of view, their code of ethics and of morals were as rigid and definite as they seemed prescribed and universal. In all essentials of manners, taste, and character, my Teutonic neighbors were as alike as nursery, school, university, and army life could mould them.

The history which follows consists of a few episodes culled from a somewhat rich experience. If in these pages I dwell on my business and personal dealings with a single individual, it is because Neighbor Hans, although he may have been a trifle more aggressive than many of his fellow Germans, was accurately representative of the entire group in his tenets and his methods.

When I first took charge of the Finca San Fernando, in 1909, the retiring manager gave me my first intimation of possible trouble. Neighbor Hans, he said, who controlled the abutting property of Santa Clara, had made life so unlivable for his own predecessor, an American, Pratt by name, that before two years were up, poor Pratt had returned to the States a nervous wreck; and my informant added that he himself was relinquishing the position for a far less desirable one, in order to escape ‘the German plague.’

To these warnings I listened politely; but after all the years I had spent doing business with English, Irish, Scotch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Norwegians, Chinese, Negroes, Indians, Venezuelans, and other Latin Americans, I anticipated no real difficulty with educated Germans; and in my own mind set down both Pratt and Cook as ’poor mixers.’

For a time my forecast seemed justified. Everything started auspiciously, and one of the first calls I received was from Neighbor Hans himself, who paid his respects and expressed the hope that we should be good neighbors; for, as he added, ‘Cook was never quite satisfactory, while Pratt was so utterly impossible that I could do nothing with him and finally had to drive him away.’

Almost my first care on taking charge of my new duties was to render myself familiar with the geography of the neighborhood. The three fincas of San Lorenzo, Santa Clara, and San Fernando were on an eight-mile trail, and were presided over respectively by Friend Cook, Neighbor Hans, and the writer. The three properties were all American in ownership, and a longstanding agreement permitted San Lorenzo and San Fernando to maintain a telephone line along the communicating trail which connected the three and which Santa Clara used, but the maintenance of which Neighbor Hans had long ago abandoned to the care of his neighbors. Quite satisfied to save himself from all difficulties of road-maintenance, Neighbor Hans was of no mind to forego the convenience of telephone communication, and he quietly attached himself to our telephone wire. When asked by what right he had tapped our wire, and if he thought it honorable to ‘listen in’ on our conversation as he did, his reply was my first experience with the new German Kultur.

‘What stuff about right and honor are you talking?’ exclaimed the outraged Hans. ‘I will tell you what they mean. They are words for preachers to scare old women and children. Men with brains know nothing of such things. Right! What is right? Anything that is worth doing, and that an intelligent man can do, is right. If it cannot be done it is wrong! I use your wire! Why should n’t I ? Can you prevent it? Try it and then see whether the wire does not break out there in the woods; and I could yet make difficulties when to repair the line your men come over. Honor? What has honor to do with it? I wish the news and listen. Besides, I must know if you and Cook talk about me. I tap your wire. I listen. It is no secret. You know I do it. I tell you I do it. There is nothing dishonorable such as you talk about. Let us speak no more about nonsense. Have a cigar? Of course now you stay to dinner. Can you loan me some corn?’ And so on, and so on.

As I listened to this tirade, it was hard to believe that the speaker was a German army officer, educated and highly intelligent, and withal so interesting and entertaining that one’s feelings of indignation and outraged justice would become anæsthetized under the influence of his hospitality and the conviction that his attitude was wholly impersonal, and his ideas of right and wrong the result of tradition and training which left him honest — from his point of view at least.

One day I was startled to count eighty oxen being driven across my land, and headed into a much-prized bridle-path which led nowhere except to a newly cultivated area. The oxen belonged to Neighbor Hans, and his men informed my courier that they were bound for the ‘señor’s’ mahogany camp down the river. Puzzled as to how Neighbor Hans could reach his camp through my jungle, and angry at this lawless invasion of my territory, I ordered my horse and rode forth to investigate. My indignation may be imagined when I discovered that my favorite trail had been reduced to a hog-wallow, and that many of the new plantings had been trampled down and destroyed. Words fail to express my feelings, however, when I followed the destroying host to an old trail which led to the river, and found branching therefrom a new, and to me unknown, trail paralleling the river. This had been cut for a mile through my jungle to a point where the oxen could be forded to the Hans camp on the opposite bank. By dropping down stream in canoes it had been a simple matter to enter our unused river-trail and cut the new road without detection.

When told of my discovery, my major-domo was as surprised as I had been, and assured me that he had given permission neither to cut the road nor for Neighbor Hans to drive the oxen across our land.

When I had composed myself somewhat, I rode over to Santa Clara, where, as usual, I was cordially welcomed by Neighbor Hans. Proceeding at once to the object of my visit, I inquired by what right he cut roads on my land, why he drove his oxen across my property without permission, whether he knew that my bridle-path had been ruined and much of the new cultivation destroyed, and what he proposed to do about it. By this time I was pretty well excited and doubtless spoke with a good deal of emphasis.

In reply, Neighbor Hans delivered himself as follows: ’I am sorry, old man, that you excite yourself about these matters, and hope that you have no idea to make trouble, for then it might be unpleasant for us both. I regret your new road is spoiled, but you should know so many oxen must destroy any road such as yours; that is to be expected. Had you made your road of stone then it could not have happened. But I know stone construction would have been difficult and expensive, so I blame you not at all for that. I have to use the road again to return my oxen, and then you can make the road back again, for I have not to use it soon again, I think. It is bad that so many new cultivation was destroyed, but so few men could not control so many oxen. I should have sent more but could not spare them. Why did you not help with your men and save some damage? You see, after all, it was much your fault. Permission to cross your land? I can’t follow you about the country asking permission for all I do. You were at Monte Cristo when I cut the river-road. I did n’t know when you would return, and I can’t hold my business while you pleasure yourself with trips about the country. Did you send me word last night you were back, then I could ask you for the permission; but how was I to know you were back? Now tell me that.

’ Why did n’t I ask your major-domo? Now I know you are not serious. Ask you. Yes. But ask your major-domo, my inferior — that is to laugh! Why should I build a road on my side when you have one already on your side? My men told me they cut no trees of value, so there can be no question of damages, so try not to be unreasonable. It seems sometimes like you much wanted to make difficulties, but take my advice. It is so much better that we live together as friends, no? Of course you now stay to dinner. I have some excellent Rhine wine just by last German boat, or do you prefer some real German beer? Better we try both. José, bring Señor Joubert the cigars, also remember he sits at table. And now everything is so nicely arranged I show you the latest German battleship in a picture by last mail. England’s superiority now is only ’ — and so forth.

During a period of reconstruction, when my living quarters were reduced to two rooms for all purposes, Neighbor Hans rode over to inform me that he expected visitors, and as it would crowd him uncomfortably to provide sleeping accommodations for his guests, he had decided to have some of them spend their nights with me. Knowing the disordered condition of my abode, he had come to advise me so that I might have time to prepare. Of course they would spend their days with him, and equally of course he would entertain them, though they might require some attention in the morning should they have been up late the night before, ha, ha!

I laughed also, it was so excruciatingly funny both in presentation and contemplation — and the naïve manner in which he invited himself to take possession of my house on behalf of his friends even added a touch of pathos to the situation. Viewing my dismantled and cramped quarters, I felt obliged to decline his proposition. I even expressed my refusal in a manner quite distinct and emphatic. But what is a Yankee right against a Junker desire?

Some days later Neighbor Hans called to inform me that his friends were due to arrive on a certain day, and that we had better look to our arrangements. He displayed great annoyance and much vexation of spirit when I recalled my former positive refusal to run my place as a hotel annex to Santa Clara. He curtly informed me that it was now too late to enter into further discussion, for his friends had already started. He then proceeded to instruct me as to the removal of certain goods and chattels to other places, explaining how I could convert my office into temporary sleeping-quarters by taking out the safe and by sundry other expedients which were so simple as to be selfevident.

With true Junker efficiency he had not neglected his information bureau through a personally conducted spysystem, and was well informed regarding the movements and possessions of his neighbors. He frequently stopped my boats as they passed his landing, and made an inventory of their cargo. He now told me how many cots, hammocks, and blankets there were on the place, and rapidly arranged their disposition. He considerately consigned me to a hammock, leaving my good American bed for the use of a stout friend who would thereby be rendered quite comfortable.

While he was thus regulating my affairs with military precision and to his own satisfaction, I stood there gasping, strangling my manhood in an endeavor to have peace at any price. Indeed, I was so occupied controlling my temper that, before I felt it safe to speak, he had jumped on his horse with a ‘So long, old man, I’ll be over to-morrow and see if you have everything in order,’ and was riding away when I came to myself. Rushing through the woods, I headed off Neighbor Hans with a torrent of words that gushed forth in a steady stream under the pressure of feelings long held in restraint. It was the best and worst job of its kind I had ever done. From amid a profusion of variegated and picturesque phrases with which a life of walking up and down the earth had provided me, the listener could glean these prosaic statements of fact. ‘You are not the German Emperor; and if you are, this is n’t Germany; and if it is, I’m not a German but an American, and I ’ll not stand for more German arrogance. I ’m going to run my own affairs in my own way, and when I wish to entertain your friends I’ll invite them myself. If you or your friends land on that river bank and start for my house in the face of my refusal to have you here, I ’ll take my Winchester and shoot you full of holes! ’

Neighbor Hans dismounted. He stood looking at me in astonishment, as if I had gone crazy on the spot, and ejaculated between my spasms, ‘What’s the matter, old man? I never saw you like this before. Calm yourself. You must be mad.’

When I finally subsided from lack of breath, he said, ‘I will see you when you are calm, and if it is trouble you seek, I will accommodate you with much pleasure. I assure you I can furnish plenty. If in doubt, you can ask Pratt.’

‘ Well,’ I retorted, ‘ trouble is the last thing I want; but if it comes, I’ll try to meet it, and if I can’t handle it, my successor will be a quick-fingered bad man from Texas.’

Hans made no reply, but flung himself into his saddle, and rode off.

When I had calmed down, I felt a bit ashamed of my own loss of temper, and wrote him an apology for the language I had used, making it plain, however, that I was not receding from my determination to remain master of my own affairs. He made no reply, nor did his friends appear. They were, as I afterwards learned, headed off by a spcial courier.

Recalling the fate of Pratt and the troubles of Cook, I now expected reprisals. Cattle might mysteriously die, fence-wires be cut and cattle get loose, bridges unexpectedly collapse, trees be felled across the trails, telephone wires be constantly cut down, the river-channel closed to navigation by cunningly arranged obstructions, and I might be continually in the saddle answering summonses of distant tribunals, getting free from one trumped-up charge only to meet another. These devices and many more had been employed against Pratt and others. A peaceful American, who fights fair if he has to fight at all, is at a great disadvantage in defending himself against a petty war of frightfulness.


As the days passed, however, with no signs of trouble, my feeling of apprehension gradually wore away, and I settled down to the enjoyment of the first undisturbed tranquillity and freedom I had enjoyed since entering the zone of German influence. Neighbor Hans had been an almost daily visitor, seeking accommodation of one kind or another; and so accustomed had he become to depending upon San Fernando for aid in every difficulty, that I took it for granted that he had given up all thought of open war. My time and work had been constantly interrupted in meeting his appeals for assistance, and from annoyance these continuous requests had become a serious nuisance. Accommodation grew to be imposition, and with my increasing reluctance, his requests became demands. Yet the one and only time that I had asked a favor of Hans it had been abruptly refused.

My greatest source of difficulty was the care of a telephone line running to the Finca Santa Felicia, ten miles distant, where Friend Russell maintained an independent wire in connection with the other American fincas along the road, thus bringing my ranch into communication with Agua Fria, our nearest town, twenty miles distant. To secure through connection, all the managers on the route must be summoned from field or office; and of course it was expected that this would be done only under very special circumstances. Ordinarily, messages were expected to be relayed at convenience, the matter being a pure courtesy extended by one neighbor to another. All the AngloSaxon managers were scrupulous in their use of this privilege, but Neighbor Hans who maintained not one bridge, not a mile of road or rod of wire, held himself superior to all constraint whatsoever, and would call for Agua Fria on the telephone when and as often as he wished. Many and many a time Neighbor Hans has favored me with an entire day at my farm, trying to get into communication with his friends in Agua Fria. On such occasions my only possible occupation was the entertainment of Neighbor Hans, and it was during these periods that I was regaled with prophecies of the rapid approach of ‘the Day,’ when England should be crushed.

‘To the English people,’ remarked Neighbor Hans, ‘we shall show no mercy. It is for the English officers only we have respect, for they are gentlemen like the Germans.’

The crushing of England was an obsession with him, but sometimes he wandered further afield, and it was evident that this was but the first step in a grander scheme. The calculating brutality of the way he talked made me uncomfortable, and sometimes I felt half sick that an educated and apparently normal human being could harbor such thoughts and ambitions. At times I protested that the destruction of Great Britain would remove a great factor in human progress and the spread of civilization, and he would reply, ‘It makes no difference what she has done in the past, now she must be destroyed.’

Once, when I argued that the intelligent German masses, especially the Socialists who were so strong in Germany, would oppose a war so criminal, he laughed, and looking at me in a pitying way said, ‘Old man, sometimes I admire your innocence, but again you are so simple. In the States I have seen those big headlines of your yellow press. We have that same type now already in every printing shop in Germany. When we declare war, we have the papers come out in big print like your American papers, telling of Germany attacked, and calling upon the people to defend their homes and Fatherland from thieves and murderers. Then in twenty-four hours there are no more Socialists, but all are Germans, Germans in the army, fighting a hated enemy. I tell you, war comes; it comes. And it comes in not more than three years.’

Well, it was the convenience of that telephone line to Agua Fria which at last brought Neighbor Hans to resume ‘friendly relations’ following our little difficulty. His demeanor toward me had undergone a complete transformation. He knocked at the door, entered only upon my invitation, inquired if I was busy and if he might use the telephone. I knew, however, that this considerate attitude was but temporary, and merely because he had decided that it was not in his interest to bring about an open breach at that time. Then ensued such a daily use of the telephone that my friends advised me that it must cease or the privilege would be withdrawn. When I finally mentioned this to Neighbor Hans, he exclaimed, ‘Ah, so, now I understand. Tell your friends I must talk with my friends. If this is not longer permitted, I take it as an unfriendly act and know what to do. They had better think it over. Better, perhaps, I see them myself and talk about it.’

And so, in addition to a nuisance now become chronic, I could see another crisis approaching. To avoid this I deliberately neglected the line; but Neighbor Hans, ignoring the hint, began to complain of its condition, and commented sharply on my poor management. He even rode over the line, and was good enough to report to me where it required attention. Coming in from the fields one day, I found him sitting in my office with the instrument in pieces, overhauling the batteries in an endeavor to discover why the instrument did not work, as repeated ringing had brought no response from Santa Felicia. I did not find it necessary to tell him that neither Santa Felicia nor any other station would answer again the old signals, still conspicuously posted beside the instrument.

Then happened the event for which I had so long waited. A violent storm laid low nearly two miles of wire, which I gathered in. The line became a thing of the past, and I went back to mounted messengers, requiring at times three days for a round trip to town. Neighbor Hans complained, cajoled, threatened, and in a final appeal went so far as to offer to contribute ‘something’ toward the restoration of the line; but on the plea of economy I steadfastly refused to consider its rehabilitation. With the passage of time, he became reconciled to the situation, and this issue was safely passed. Peace at any price! Had I refused him the use of the line, or had I removed the wire without nature’s aid, he would have considered it a casus belli.

About this time Neighbor Hans took a trip to Agua Fria, accompanied by his titled German wife and boy. To avoid the Santa Felicia trail, rendered almost impassable by heavy rains, he selected the longer but better San Isidro road, a property presided over by Neighbor Wilhelm. Now Neighbor Wilhelm and Neighbor Hans, though both were Germans, were not friends; and when Wilhelm saw Hans and his party riding down his road, he waxed wroth and ordered the trail closed against their return. Holding up a woman and a small boy in a jungle country, with hours of détour over difficult and dangerous trails, and long distances between habitations, is not a brave and gallant act; but then, when two ‘cultured’ Germans are not on friendly terms, women and children have no right to go abroad. It was not Neighbor Wilhelm’s fault, any more than it was the fault of Von Tirpitz that women and children sailed on the Lusitania. It was unfortunate, it is true, but certainly no fair-minded person could find fault with Wilhelm because a lady of considerable charm and attainments had married his enemy, Hans.

Well, to continue, I was returning from Agua Fria at the time, and as it turned out, I was the goat that was caught in the trap. In the depth of the jungle, where a steep-sided and deep arroyo could be crossed only by a narrow bridge, some trees had been felled, completely blocking the bridge. It was fortunate that at that particular point there happened to be no very large trees susceptible of being used as a barricade; but, as things were, in order to avoid a five-hour détour, my horseboy and I spent two hours with our machetes cutting a passage for our mounts. As for Hans, word reached him, and consequently he brought his family home by another route.

A few days after this incident I complained to Neighbor Wilhelm that it did not seem fair, just to spite one individual, to close so important a trail against his other neighbors. He answered that his honor would not permit him to allow Neighbor Hans to come on his property, and if others suffered in consequence, he was sorry, but he could not help it.

This is a truthful history which I am setting down; but if the reader should ever chance to be the welcome guest of this most genial host, and have an opportunity to enjoy the conversation of this experienced, traveled, and educated man, he wall say, ‘It is impossible; Herr Wilhelm never could do such things. He is a gentleman. Either that man Joubert is not telling the truth or it is another Wilhelm that he has in mind.’

But, reader, I assure you that it is the same Wilhelm, as it is the same Hans.

To appreciate the incident which I have just related, it must be understood that it was not only custom, but a matter of pride, for each propertyowner to maintain a good communication trail across his land, connecting with the trails maintained by his neighbors; for it was only by such coöperation that travel over large sections of the country was possible. The exceptions to this rule were the Germans of university-military caste, who, in petty spite against their neighbors, repeatedly obstructed trails and resorted to other harassing methods, in order to have revenge on some enemy, real or imaginary. Among the Americans no enmities existed, while the Germans were divided into jealous groups. This was fortunate for us, for, had the Germans pulled together, it would have been difficult for an American to remain in the district, unless he was willing to submit to German domination.

Still another incident may prove illustrative. One day, while hunting, Friend Cook came upon some fresh mahogany stumps. Following a timber trail newly made, he came to the river, where, to his amazement, he saw some twenty logs all rafted to float away. Making inquiry, he discovered almost immediately that the cutting and rafting had been done by employees of Neighbor Hans, who at the time happened to be working mahogany. Fortified in his proofs by a government survey, Friend Cook called upon Neighbor Hans for satisfaction and settlement. He found him in great spirits, and inclined to be satirical; but as soon as Friend Cook had made the purpose of his visit painfully clear, then Neighbor Hans grew insolently indignant at both charge and claim. When, however, Cook placed an embargo on the logs, Hans was glad to sign an agreement, promising to pay a ridiculously small and merely nominal stumpage fee. Good-natured Neighbor Cook, desiring only to have the moral ascendency in the dispute, waived his right to the logs and the value thereof, in order to avoid a troublesome fight which might, delay his departure to the States, where he was impatient to go to visit his sick wife.

A few days later, when Friend Cook had started northward, Neighbor Hans rode across mv place on his way home from down river. He dismounted and came up to the house in a noticeably bad humor. With a brief greeting he burst forth with, ‘It seems your friend Cook looks for trouble. He will get plenty, you may be sure of that! Takes me for a fool, huh! I will show him something. While my men work he sleeps in his house. Why does he not watch his land? Does he think I follow my men and look where they go? How can I tell whether they go on his place or not? No, I look out for my own land, not for my neighbor’s. That is their affair. I have troubles enough of my own, without taking on other people’s. It is his mistake and not mine if his trees are cut down. Now you tell him for me I pay him not one red cent for those logs. Last night I float the logs down stream to another jurisdiction, and that paper I sign no longer has value. I sign it to fool him.1 Now he will find out what kind of man I am. He makes a mistake to fight Hans. I will show him.'2 That night I had a good deal to think about, and a few days later, seeking sympathy I rode over to Finca Santa Felicia, and laid my trials before Friend Russell. But, instead of commiseration, my host turned on me. ‘As a friend,’ said he, ‘I advise you not to repeat to others what you have just told me; for if you do, you will lose the respect of every man in this section. I cannot understand it. I supposed you were a man of spirit. Why, I’d like to see anybody put anything like that over on me.’

That was all the satisfaction I got on that day; but shortly afterwards, Neighbor Hans passed my home, riding a horse which bore a curious resemblance to that of Friend Russell. I remarked on the likeness to Hans, who promptly admitted that it was Russell’s horse, which he had been ‘obliged to borrow,’ as his own mount had gone lame when he reached Santa Felicia.

A week later Friend Russell came in on a mule, making hasty inquiry as to whether I had seen his horse. I informed him that Neighbor Hans had ridden it through the week before. Russell looked at me with an expression which gave me entertainment. ‘Hans,’ he ejaculated, ‘has one big nerve.’

‘Where is the nerve?’ I asked, as blandly as you please; ‘you lent him the horse, did n’t you?’

‘Lent nothin’,’ snorted Russell; ‘Hans took my horse from the corral and left his lame one. I knew nothing of it till I went for my horse and found it gone. My men saw Hans take it, but supposed I had given him permission. That’s what I call nerve. He might have sent it back anyway. I’m going after it, and if you hear any noise over yonder it’s me doing things.’

And Friend Russell disappeared on his mule in the direction of Santa Clara. It was late in the afternoon when he returned, riding his horse and leading the mule. Hans had explained that, being short of help, he could not send the animal back at once, and besides he had had to use it to visit his own property, a three days’ trip into the campo.

‘Well, what did you say to him Russell ? ’

‘Oh, I didn’t say much,’ replied Russell; ‘you see, I was right glad to get my horse back, and besides he opened up some of that old Rhinewine stuff and treated me pretty white, and though I felt rather sore, I thought I’d better let it go at that.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘let me advise you as a friend never to repeat that happening to any one about here, as you might lose their respect. By Jove! I’m surprised. I thought you were a man of courage. I’d like to see any one put anything like that over on me.’

Such were these neighbors, university-taught and army-bred. When the newspapers of early August, 1914, reached me and I read with horror of the invasion of Belgium, my hands dropped to my lap, and I exclaimed aloud, ‘Neighbor Hans is loose in Europe, too!’

  1. A thesis since officially indorsed by the Chancellor of the German Empire.
  2. By virtue of measures inaugurated by telegraph on the part of Neighbor Hans, Friend Cook was held up by the authorities at the port of departure. Before the officials could satisfy themselves that no reason existed for detaining Cook, he had been put to considerable expense and trouble, including a long and vexatious delay.— THE AUTHOR.