The Family Chronicle

I

THE war was over, the soldiers returned. They had left with music and songs — many had left; but now their number was small and their voices were low. The fragrance of the soil greeted them. The oaks loosened their leaves and spread a carpet of rust-brown brocade over the land. The war was over.

Then winter came and hung a garment of crisp white snow over firs and pine trees. The wind from the east blew rough and cold, rushed over the plains, and hardened to ice the water flooding the meadows.

Rudolf Schulte and his wife, Katharina Schulte, were alone in the room. It was in the late forenoon. The sun was far away in the southern sky and colored the frozen panes of the windows with a pale yellow light. The fire crackled on the hearth, but only in the upper corners of each pane had the ice flowers lost their leaves. Rudolf Schulte went to the desk, brought the family chronicle, and laid it on the table. His wife looked at him; he looked at her. As he turned the pages he recognized the different handwritings of the Schulten who had lived before his time here on the same farm. He knew the long family history by heart, but he liked to see it word for word, just as it had been written. He had blank sheets before him now. He gazed thoughtfully at the paper, turned the pen in his fingers, and put it back on the inkstand. He closed the heavy leather-bound volume and locked it in the desk again.

His wife shook her head. ‘Rudolf, have you written it down?’

‘No, not yet. I do not know just what to write.’

‘Just write it down in a few simple words. A few simple words will do.’

‘Yes, a few simple words, I guess.’ He put on his long, heavy overcoat, and his high, sturdy build appeared still more powerful.

‘Where are you going to-day?’

‘I have to show him; you know how it is. He does not even know the boundaries. Nobody has ever shown him. He must know.’

‘Yes, he must know, but it is cold to-day. Death is blowing over the land.’

‘Yes, it is cold,’ and the tall, grayhaired man took his oak-wood cane and fur cap and left the room. He crossed the open yard, north of the house, and went into the stables. On both sides of the wide passage stood a long row of black-and-white cows, all thoroughbreds, valuable stock, the result of careful mating. He was still proud of the animals and proud of himself when he thought of his work here on Schulten farm; but a walk through the stables did not give him the great satisfaction it had given him in earlier years.

‘Heinrich!’ he called loudly. The answer came from the adjoining horse stable, and a young man of about twenty-five approached. ‘Heinrich, you take an axe and we shall go to the pines.’

‘To the pines,’ the young man repeated to himself while he walked to the tool room, ‘to the pines.’ He had been thinking of the approaching holiday, but now that it was so near . . . He should have told the old people. What could he say? How could he tell them without recalling the past to life, without causing them sorrow anew? But he had to tell them. He could not possibly wait until the last day.

‘You must put on a heavy overcoat and your high boots. It is deadly cold. We cannot spare any more young men.’

Heinrich went back into the horse stable. There he had his high boots and an overcoat. ‘ We cannot spare any more young men,’ he mused. How could he possibly tell the old man? But he had to tell him, and it was, perhaps, somewhat silly to feel this way, to find it so difficult. Perhaps it was silly. Perhaps he saw a darker past than old Schulte himself.

II

Rudolf Schulte and young Heinrich Schulte walked over the fields. They were of equal height. Their broad, square shoulders and their determined strides gave them a strong family resemblance. They could easily be taken for father and son. They walked northward and made a new trail through the untrodden snow. Old Rudolf Schulte walked on the right side. With every second step the point of his cane left a narrow, funnelshaped hole in the snow. In the distance before them the forest appeared like a white, heavy bank of clouds, supported by a dark wall of fir trunks. The old man lifted his cane and pointed to the right. ‘There, where the post stands out of the snow, is the fine. The land on the other side belongs to our neighbor, Holtvogt. Our families have never had any difficulties. We have always helped each other, and I hope that will never change.’ He looked at Heinrich.

‘No, that must never change,’ the young man said. Then came a long silence. Only the snow answered steadily to the men’s steps — knirk, knirk, knirk. ‘Wonder whether he finds it difficult to tell me all about Schulten place,’ Heinrich thought.

‘And do not forget,’ Rudolf Schulte again began, ‘the corner, about forty acres framed on two sides by alder bushes, must never be flooded. The soil is binding and inclined to be sour. Every fourth year it must be given a good portion of lime, otherwise bulrushes and moss will soon cover the surface and kill the good grasses. Lime warms and sweetens the soil.’

Heinrich nodded. He had to know all this, he appreciated being told, and yet he did not like to listen to the words. It was as if the man were preparing for death, as if death would come and take him to-morrow. ‘Uncle, you are not so very old yet,’ he said, turning to Rudolf. He called him uncle, although they were not very near of kin.

‘No, no, not so very old yet, but my days have been many, and the end comes in the sequence of the days.’ The men turned northeastward. The wind came straight into their faces. ‘It is cold, it is bitter cold,’ said the old man, and the wind drove tears out of his eyes. They ran down his cheeks and formed frozen crystals in his gray beard. He pulled the fox fur collar of his coat higher and drew his chin deeper into it. The wind whirled the snow in circles of white dust. The fence wires were singing in fine, metal-clear voices. Large swarms of gray-colored fog crows settled in the snow and called their sufferings into the cold day. From the woods came the bark of a hungry fox. The world was frozen. No mouse left its hole; the gopher slept his sleep of winter.

The men reached the forest. They stopped short and looked at one another. Here it was not so cold. The trees held off the wind. ‘The coldest day for years,’ old Schulte said.

‘The winters in Russia were colder,’ replied Heinrich.

‘Yes, and in the trenches it must have been insufferably cold.’ While he was still talking, Rudolf looked up at the high trees. ‘This patch here is not so old as it seems to be. I planted it out when I was in my best years, forty years ago. It has grown fast, but the wood is not hardened by age. It must stay for another forty before it is felled.’

‘Another forty,’ Heinrich said. ‘Then I shall be an old man.’

‘Almost — not quite. But, Heinrich, that is why the farm population here in the north sits so tightly in the saddle. One generation works for the next. No one expects that he himself will harvest the fruits of his labors. It is the unselfish work of a man that lasts and moulds the future. A lasting fruit needs time to grow.’

Their way led into a dale. Not the slightest wind penetrated here. The sky was cloudless. The sun was far away, but without the wind it seemed warm. The trees were dripping. The moist snow shimmered brilliantly, and showed a slight touch of gold from the sun. The drops twinkled white, red, blue, green — their colors always determined by the background; and the background of the small dripping water pearls was composed of innumerable colors. When the snow slid off, branches snapped into their old positions. The young pine forest spread on both sides of the way. The trees were only man-high. The sun had freed the outer rows from the snow. All the small birds seemed to have gathered here. They were busy where the melted snow had exposed the soil. The warmth would last only a few hours; then the frost would come again, and no beetle, no fly, would dare to leave its hiding place.

The men looked at each tree. Heinrich’s thoughts were far away. ‘It is difficult,’ said the old man, ‘to find one, difficult to take one out where it will not hurt, but we have had one every year and we shall find one this year. This one, perhaps. No, it is difficult to take one out of the row without leaving a permanent gap. That one could be spared, but it is not symmetrical in growth. The branches are not the same length on both sides, and one side is too bushy, it seems.’

‘I should tell him, I am foolish not to tell him,’ Heinrich thought. ‘I am not a servant that I have to ask for a few days’ vacation, but it is only considerate to tell him. I should have told him a week ago. Only a few more days and I shall leave.’

Before he really had decided to speak, and before he had thought of just what to say, he began, ‘I am glad I do not have to spend the holidays this year where I spent them the last four years.’

Rudolf Schulte looked at the young man. ‘Yes, I am, too,’ said he. ‘Thank God, it is over — but the end could have been a different one. The end was bad.’

‘Yes, the end was bad,’ Heinrich said, ‘but better a bad end than a worse continuation. The first time in four years that all of our family will be at home for the holidays — only one more week until then.’

A sudden sadness struck the old man’s soul. His face grew ash-gray. Ah, Heinrich was not his son! ‘All of you will be together then,’ he said.

‘Yes, we shall all be home for the holidays.'

‘Of course, I expected you would go home for the holidays.’ They had come to the end of the pine grove. ‘Well, we have not found what we wanted.'

‘Are n’t we going back this way? We have only looked at one side. Perhaps on the other side we can find one,’said Heinrich.

‘No, I guess not. I cannot find one this year, it seems. There are many, and yet there are none.'

They walked homeward. It was easier to walk now with the wind behind. The buildings of Schulten farm came into sight. The roofs were covered with snow. The whole place seemed much larger now that the fields around were white. ‘All new buildings, Heinrich. They will last for generations to come, if they are taken care of— if the country is not ruled by those people who do not know, or do not want to know, the difference between “mine” and “thine.” Let us hope that time will never come.'

Heinrich was silent. Of course that time would come. No farmer would remain owner of the soil; at least, he would not be allowed to call more than a few acres his own. They went into the stables. It was warm between the animals. Heinrich took a broom and swept the snow from his uncle’s boots.

III

Rudolf Schulte went into the house to his wife. ‘It is warm here,’ said he.

‘You have just been outside. It seems warmer to you than it is. The ice flowers are still blooming.'

‘Cold days — very cold outside.’

‘Where have you been?'

‘We have been in the forests. I had to tell him many things he did not know.’

‘How could he know?’

‘Of course he could not. He is going home for the holidays.'

‘He is going home!’

‘Yes, they will all be home.'

‘I expected he would go. When will he leave?’

‘I do not know.’

‘Did he not say?'

‘He did not say.’

‘I suppose he will leave, then, a day before.’

‘Yes, a day before, I suppose.’

‘Perhaps he will leave sooner.’

' Perhaps he will.'

‘How long will he stay away? Will he stay away over New Year’s, too?'

‘I do not know. He said they all would be home for the holidays.'

‘For the holidays. Then he will stay over New Year’s. I expected he would. He has not been home on the holidays for the last four years. He really has to go. They expect him at home.’

‘Of course they expect him.'

‘I will bring you a pair of dry woolen socks.'

‘Never mind. I just want to take off my boots. My socks are dry.’

‘Here, these are better; change them near the fire. Do not go into the bedroom; the air is too cold.’

‘I have to go to the stables first to see whether the windows and doors are closed. The wind is deadly.’ He arose and went outside into the horse stable. ‘Heinrich, the clock struck one. It is time for lunch. You must come in. When are you going to leave, did you say?’

‘ A day, just a day before the holiday.'

‘And are you staying over New Year’s Day?’

‘No, I shall be back before New Year’s Day. I shall, perhaps, stay away only two days.’

‘You must come in soon. It is time for lunch. And do not forget to close the doors when you leave the stable.’ Rudolf Schulte went into the house again, took off his boots, and changed his socks. ‘He is staying only two days,’ said he.

‘Then he will be here on New Year’s.'

‘Yes, on New Year’s he will be here.’ The old man looked pleased. He lit his long pipe, sat down in his highbacked chair, and puffed the blue smoke toward the ceiling. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you see, Katharina, on New Year’s he will be here.’

IV

It was late on Christmas night. The moon was bright and growing. It poured its fullness over the fields and gave color to the flowers frozen in the windows. In the moonlight the buildings of Schulten farm stood out on the plain like an island in a Nordic legend. A row of strong oaks reached their bare arms into the ice-cold air, and their shadows wrote giant letters on the snow-covered roofs. If the first of the Schulten had planted these oaks they would be a thousand years old. The first-born son of each generation had taken over the soil, and had handed it down to the next in his line. The soil was holy ground.

Rudolf Schulte and his wife, Katharina, were alone in the room. She looked at him, he looked at her. This Christmas the war was over.

He opened the desk and laid the family chronicle on the table. He read what his ancestor, Friedrich, had written during the Thirty Years’ War. At that time Schulten farm had been one of the few places in this part of the country which had not been deserted, but Friedrich and his old mother, Elise Schulte, had been the only people on the place. His two sisters, Agnes and Gertrud, had been taken to Holland by the soldiers and had never been heard of again. No cattle had been left on the farm. Friedrich had saved one horse by burning out its eyes. The soldiers did not want blind horses. In 1628 all the buildings had been burned, and Friedrich — by this time he was left alone — had lived in the narrow high stone building which had been built centuries ago as a protection against robber knights.

Frau Schulte looked at her husband. ‘Rudolf, it is late.’

‘Yes, it is late.’ He turned a few leaves and read again. Gustav Schulte had seen the Seven Years’ War. Hermann, Gustav’s first-born, had fallen in 1759. One boy only was left, but he was sickly, and Gustav expressed his fear that the Schulten line might come to an end. That, however, did not come to pass. The boy developed into a strong man, improved the place, and left four sons. . . .

Rudolf Schulte went outside. The snow-covered buildings, the great white fields, were to him the death garment of his line. If only one of them . . . ‘ It has come to the end with us Schulten.’ He went around the house and the barns and through the stables. If only one of them had come home. . . .

Frau Schulte had the photographs lying before her. Rudolf, Hermann, Heinrich, Ernst — four sons. . . . ‘O Lord, have we indeed deserved this? All four of them? Not one have you left to us, not one to Schulten.’ She looked at the framed documents on the wall. Each showed an angel consoling a dying soldier. Frau Schulte read once more:—

Rudolf Schulte, geboren 23. März, 1884, gefallen 4. August, 1914, bei Lüttich. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Rudolf would have been the next on Schulten farm.

Hermann Schulte, geboren 2. Februar, 1891, gefallen im Juli, 1915, in Russland. Dulce et decorum est . . .

Heinrich Schulte, geboren 29. März, 1895, gefallen 22. Juli, 1918, bei Chatteau Thierry. . . . pro patria . . .

Ernst Schulte, geboren 6. Mai, 1899, gefallen 22. Juli, 1918, bei Chatteau Thierry. . . . mori . . .

Ernst and Heinrich had only been children. Last Christmas the two boys had been on furlough and had trimmed the Tannenbaum. And this Christmas the war was over.

Frau Schulte could not hide the pictures. Her husband entered too soon. He opened the family chronicle again and turned the pages which he himself had written as the years had passed.

‘Rudolf, have you written it down?’

‘No, not yet.’

‘I guess you should.’

‘Yes, I guess I should.’

‘It is better to write it down. It would not be fair.’

‘You are right; it would not be fair to them. What do you think I should write?’

‘Write it just in a few simple words. A few simple words will do.’

‘Yes, a few simple words. There is hardly any ink left, it seems.’

‘There is more. I will bring it.’

‘No, don’t. I guess this will do. What do you think I should write?’

‘Just write it down in a few simple words. Mention their names, perhaps, and their ages.’

‘Yes, their names and their ages, I guess. . . . Katharina, I don’t believe this pen is any good. Is there another somewhere around ? ’

‘Wait, I will see.’

‘Never mind, I suppose this will do.’

V

‘Have you finished, Rudolf?’

‘Almost, not quite. I do not know just how to end.’ He wrote: —

Rudolf — Hermann — Heinrich — Ernst Schulte.

Fallen, World War, 1914-1918.

Our line has come to an end. I, Rudolf Schulte, the last of Schulten, leave this place to Heinrich Schulte, my cousin’s son.

I curse whoever should dare to read this our history without the deepest of awe, and with the help of God do I curse whoever should dare to alienate our farm. So help me God.

RUDOLF SCHULTE Anno Domini 1918, December

He put down his pen and closed the volume.

‘Have you finished now, Rudolf?’

‘Yes, I have written the end.’

‘It is late.’

‘Yes, it is late.’

‘The fire cannot do any harm?’

‘No, it is almost out. . . . Well, Christmas is over, Katharina.’

‘Yes, it is over.’