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Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
1830-1916

   

Krambambuli

by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Translated by Basil Creighton


   
 

A MAN MAY FEEL a liking for all kinds of things, but real, undying love comes but once, if ever. That at least was the opinion of Hopp, the gamekeeper. He had had any number of dogs and liked them all, but only Krambambuli inspired a love he could not forget. He bought him at the Lion at Wischau from a vagabond woodman, or rather swapped him. At the very first sight of the dog he took a fancy to him that was to last till his dying day. The dog's master was sitting at the table with an empty glass in front of him, abusing the innkeeper because he would not let him have a second without payment. He was a little fellow, with a rascally look, and though still a young man he was as sallow as a withered tree, with yellow hair and a sparse yellow beard. The coat he wore suggested the faded glories of his last settled job, and it bore the marks of a night spent in a damp ditch. Although Hopp was not fond of keeping low company he sat down beside the man and began talking to him at once. It soon came out that the ne'er-do-well had already pledged his gun and cartridge-bag for drink and now wanted to pledge his dog too; but the innkeeper, the dirty skinflint, would have nothing to do with a pledge that needed feeding.

Hopp said nothing at first about having taken a fancy to the dog, but he ordered a bottle of the good Dantzig cherry brandy, which the Lion stocked at that time, and poured out a glass for the woodman--and, to cut a long story short, in an hour it was all settled. The gamekeeper offered twelve bottles of the same brand and the deal was done--the vagrant gave up his dog, much against his will, to his honour be it said. His hands trembled so violently as he tied the cord round the dog's neck that it seemed he would never get it done. Hopp waited patiently, admiring the animal in silence, for he was a wonderful dog in spite of the poor condition he was in. He looked two years old at most and in colour he resembled the scoundrel who was handing him over, though a shade or two darker. He had a white mark on his forehead, which branched into two thin lines like the needles on a fir twig. His eyes were large, black and lustrous and rimmed with light yellow as clear as dew; his long ears were set high and perfect in shape. Everything about him was perfect from his claws to his keenly scenting nose and his strong agile frame; his legs and feet were beyond all praise, four living pillars which might have carried a stag, and no thicker than a hare's. By St. Hubert, the animal must have had a pedigree as old and untarnished as that of a knight of a German order.

The gamekeeper's heart rejoiced within him at the fine bargain he had made. He stood up and took hold of the cord which the woodman had at last succeeded in knotting. "What's his name?" he asked.

"His name is the same as what you gave for him--Krambambuli," was the answer.

"Right. Come along, Krambambuli."

It was no good calling, whistling and tugging--the dog would not obey him but turned his head to the man he still took to be his master, yelping when he was told to go, and though he got a kick into the bargain, even then he struggled hard to get loose. It took Hopp all his time to get hold of the dog. At last he had to put him in a sack and carry him on his back to his gamekeeper's cottage, which was some hours' walk away.

Two whole months passed before Krambambuli, half beaten to death and kept on a chain with a spiked collar after every attempt to escape, at last understood to whom he now belonged. But, once his submission was complete, what a dog he was! No tongue can describe the heights he attained to, not only in the exercise of his profession, but as zealous servant, good friend and protector. It is often said of intelligent dogs that they can do everything but speak. Krambambuli did not lack even this. His master at least had long talks with him. The gamekeeper's wife was thoroughly jealous of Buli, as she contemptuously called him, and often reproached her husband. She spent the whole day knitting in silence when she was not tidying up, washing or cooking. At night after supper when she started on her knitting again she would have liked to have someone to speak to for once.

"You've plenty to say to Buli, but you've nothing to say to me. You talk so much to animals you've forgotten how to talk to human beings." The gamekeeper admitted there was some truth in this but he did not know what to do about it. What was there they could talk about? They had never had children, they were not allowed to keep a cow, and chickens were of no interest to a gamekeeper in their living state and of not much more when roasted. On the other hand his wife took no interest in pheasant rearing or shooting stories. Hopp at last found a way out of his dilemma; instead of talking to Krambambuli he talked about Krambambuli, about the glories he reflected on him on every hand, about the envy he excited, about the fantastic sums he was offered for him and which he scornfully rejected.

When two years had gone by the Countess, the wife of his employer, paid a visit one day to the keeper's cottage. He knew at once what the object of it was and as soon as the amiable and beautiful lady began: "Good morning, Hopp, it is the Count's birthday-----" he quietly concluded her sentence for her with a smile: "And so your ladyship would like to give the Count a present and you don't know of anything that would please him so much as Krambambuli."

"Yes, Hopp-----" and the Countess flushed with pleasure at his friendly way of meeting the suggestion, said how grateful she was and asked him to name what price he liked for the dog.

The old fox of a gamekeeper chuckled and then, putting on an air of resignation, he came out with it: "Your ladyship, if the dog stays at the castle and doesn't bite through every cord and break every chain, or if he doesn't strangle himself in trying, then you can keep him for nothing, for in that case he is no more good to me."

The trial was made, but it did not get as far as strangling, for before that the Count lost all interest in the obstinate animal. In vain they tried to win him over first by kindness and then with harshness. He bit everyone who approached him, refused to cat and--for a keeper's dog has little flesh to lose--began to pine away. After a few weeks Hopp was told he could come and fetch his cur. He lost no time and when he went to find the dog in his kennel there was a scene of the wildest delight. Krambambuli barked in a frenzy of joy, jumped up at his master and with his forefeet on his chest licked away the tears of joy which ran down the old man's checks.

On the evening of this happy day they went to the inn together. The keeper played Taroc with the doctor and the solicitor while Krambambuli lay in a corner behind his master, who often glanced round at him, and then the dog, however fast asleep he seemed to be, began to beat the floor with his tail, as though to say: "Here I am." And when Hopp absentmindedly started singing his little triumphal song: "What's my Krambambuli doing?" the dog rose with respectful dignity and his bright eyes answered: "I'm all right."

About this time there was a gang of poachers at work, not only in the Count's forests but throughout the whole neighbourhood. They were reckless fellows and the leader of them was said to be a thorough bad lot. The woodmen, who sometimes came across him drinking brandy in disreputable alehouses, called him the Yellow-skin; so did the keepers, who had got on his track now and again but had never been able to catch him, and so did his own spies of whom he had many among the roughs in every village.

He was the most impudent customer that ever an honest keeper had to deal with and he must at one time have been a keeper or a woodman himself, otherwise he would not have known so well where game was to be found nor been able to elude so skilfully every trap that was set for him.

Such depredations had never been known before and keepers and foresters were roused to revengeful fury. In consequence insignificant trespasses were too often visited with harsher punishment than was either customary or justifiable. There was great indignation over this in all the villages. The head forester, who was the first to incur hatred, was given a number of well-meant warnings. It was going round that the poachers had sworn to take a stern revenge on him at the first opportunity. He was a headstrong and fearless man and instead of paying the least attention he let it be known far and wide that he had instructed his underlings to treat all trespassers with the utmost severity and that he took full responsibility for the consequences. He was always telling Hopp to keep his eyes open and sometimes accused him of being slow, at which the old man only smiled. But Krambambuli, whom the keeper was wont to look down at on such occasions, yawned loudly and contemptuously. Neither he nor his master took it amiss of the head forester. Hopp never forgot that it was the forester's father who had taught him the noble art of venery and Hopp in turn had taught the son the rudiments of it when he was a little boy. The trouble he had spent on him once upon a time was still a pleasure to look back on; he was proud of his one-time pupil and loved him in spite of the rough treatment that he as well as everybody else had to take at his hands.

One morning in June he came across him again when he was after some trespassers.

It was in the circular group of lime trees at the bottom of the park where it bordered on the "Count's Wood" and not far from the tree nursery, which the head forester would dearly have liked to protect with gunpowder mines. The limes were just in full bloom and a gang of small boys had come stealing the blossom. They were climbing like squirrels along the branches of the fine trees, breaking off all the sprays they could reach and throwing them down to the ground. Two women were hastily collecting them and stuffing them into baskets, which were already more than half full of the fragrant plunder. The head forester came striding up in ungovernable rage. He told his men to shake the children from the trees, never mind from what height they fell. While they crawled at his feet whimpering and crying, one with a torn face, another with his arm out of joint, a third with a broken leg, he thrashed the two women with his own hands. Hopp did not feel very happy about it when he recognised one of them as the wanton who was rumoured to be the Yellow-skin's sweetheart. And when, after the baskets and shawls of the women and the hats of the boys had been impounded, Hopp was instructed to bring the culprits to justice, he could not help a dark foreboding.

The head forester, raging like the devil in hell and like him surrounded by wailing and suffering sinners, shouted the order after him and these were the last words the keeper ever heard him speak. A week later he came across him again among the lime trees--dead. The state in which the body was found showed that it had been dragged over marshy as well as stony ground in order to be laid out on that particular spot. The head forester lay on a bier of branches; round his head was a thick wreath of lime blossom and another was wound about his chest as a bandolier. His hat was beside him, full of lime blossom. The murderer had left him his cartridgebag, only he had taken out the cartridges and put in lime blossom instead. His fine breech-loader was missing and replaced by a wretched old blunderbuss. When later the bullet was extracted from his chest, it was found to fit exactly in the barrel of the blunderbuss which had been mockingly laid over his shoulder. At the sight of the corpse Hopp came to a stop, motionless with horror. He could not have raised a finger, and even his brain seemed paralysed; he only stared and stared and at first thought of nothing at all. It was only after some moments that he came to his senses and mutely asked himself the question: What's the matter with the dog?

Krambambuli was sniffing at the dead man and then running round about him as though bereft of his senses, his nose always to the ground. Once he gave a whimper, once he uttered a shrill bark of joy, ran forward a few steps, barked again and behaved exactly as though the memory of something long forgotten had come back to him.

"Come to heel," Hopp called, "come here!" and Krambambuli obeyed but looked up at his master in the wildest excitement and--as the keeper used to say--said to him: "I implore you by all that's holy, don't you see anything? Don't you smell anything? . . . Dear mother, just look, just smell! Master, do come! Come here!" and after nozzling at his knee, he crept back to the corpse, looking round, as though to ask: "Are you following me?" and started lifting and pushing the heavy gun and taking it in his jaws with the obvious intention of bringing it along with him.

A shudder ran down the keeper's spine and a dim conjecture formed in his mind. But conjecture was no concern of his and also it was none of his business to teach the authorities their business, but rather to leave his ghastly find just as he had found it and go his way, which in this case was straight to the police. So he did simply what he thought it his business to do.

When he had done it, and all the formalities which the law prescribes in such catastrophes had been completed and the whole day and part of the night spent over them, Hopp, before going to sleep took counsel once more with his dog.

"Krambambuli," he said, "the police are afoot now and there'll be an everlasting coming and going. Are we going to leave it to others to finish off the scoundrel who shot our head forester? My dog knows the dirty loafer, he knows him all right. But nobody need know that. I have never said a word . . . I . . . I'll bring my dog into this story . . . that's an idea!" He bent over Krambambuli, who was sitting between his knees, pressed his check to the dog's head and was gratefully caressed in return. Meanwhile he murmured: "What's my Krambambuli doing?" until sleep overcame him.

Psychologists have tried to explain the strange impulse that often takes a criminal back again and again to the scene of his crime. Hopp knew nothing of these learned investigations, but all the same he and his dog were never long away from the circle of lime trees. On the tenth day after the murder he had been thinking for the first time for some hours on end of something else than his revenge and was busied in the "Count's Wood" marking the trees which were next to be felled.

When he had done he slung his gun over his shoulder again and made a bee-line through the wood for the pheasant coops near the limes. Just as he was about to emerge on to the footpath which ran along the beech hedge he thought he heard a rustle among the leaves. But next moment there was utter silence. He might have thought he had been mistaken if the dog's attention had not been so strangely roused. He stood with his coat bristling, his neck stretched out, his tail erect, gazing at a particular spot in the hedge. Ha, ha! Hopp thought. You wait, my lad, if that's you. He then stepped behind a tree and cocked his gun. His heart pounded and, as he was always a bit short-winded, he was scarcely able to breathe. Then suddenly the Yellow-skin stepped out of the hedge on to the footpath. Two leverets hung out of his side pockets and over his shoulder, by the leather strap Hopp knew so well, hung the head forester's breech-loader.

Now was the moment to shoot the blackguard from a safe ambush.

But Hopp was not the man to shoot at even the worst of scoundrels without giving him warning. In one stride he left the shelter of the tree and shouted from the footpath: "Hands up, you skunk!" Then as the poacher's only answer was to snatch the breech-loader from his shoulder, the keeper fired . . . by all the saints in heaven, a fine shot. The only report was a click. He had left his gun too long against a tree, with the cap exposed and there was a misfire.

Goodnight, that's what dying means--went through the old man's head and at the same moment his hat flew into the grass . . . The other's luck was out too, the swine. He had wasted the only shot he had in the breech and there was an interval while he felt in his pocket for another cartridge . . .

"Go for him!" Hopp shouted hoarsely to his dog, "go for him!"

"Come here to me, here, Krambambuli," the dog heard from over there in a caressing voice he had once known and loved so well.

Krambambuli recognised his old master and ran half way towards him. Then Hopp whistled and he turned round. The Yellow-skin whistled and he turned round again, and kept on revolving on one spot midway between the keeper and the poacher, torn both ways . . .

At last the poor animal gave up and made an end of his agonising doubts, though not of the agonies they caused him. Whimpering and whining, with his belly to the ground, wriggling his body along, head in air as though calling heaven to witness his agony of mind, he crawled--to his first master.

Hopp saw red at the sight. His fingers trembled as he put a fresh cap beneath the hammer and deliberately took his aim. The Yellow-skin too put his rifle to his shoulder. This time there would be no mistake. Both knew that, as they drew a bead on each other and, come what might, aimed as quietly as if they were marksmen in a painted picture.

Two bullets flew. The keeper's found its mark, the poacher's--missed. At the very moment he pressed the trigger the dog jumped up at him in a frenzy of joy to lick his face and jerked his aim. "You beast," he hissed and then fell backwards and moved no more.

The man who had killed him came slowly up. You've done for yourself, he thought, you're not worth powder and shot. Nevertheless he put the stock to the ground and loaded again. The dog sat upright on his haunches, his tongue out, his breath coming in short pants, looking at him. And when the keeper had done loading and picked up his gun they had a talk of which no third person would have understood a word even though he had been alive instead of dead.

"Do you know who this bullet's for?"

"I can make a guess."

"Deserter, traitor-----"

"Yes, master, I know."

"You were my joy. Now it's over. I shall never have joy in you again."

"I quite understand, master," and Krambambuli laid his head on his paws and looked at the gamekeeper.

Yes, if only the cursed brute had not looked at him! Then he would have put an end to him on the spot and saved himself and the dog much misery. But you cannot shoot a creature that looks at you like that. Hopp muttered a few curses through his teeth, one blasphemy after another, shouldered his gun, took the poacher's leverets from him and went away.

The dog followed him with his eyes until he was lost to sight among the trees and then he got up and his long-drawn, piercing howl rang through the wood. He turned round in circles once or twice and then sat down on his haunches again beside the dead man. He was still there when the police, and Hopp with them, came back at nightfall to view the poacher's body and remove it. Krambambuli retreated a little way as the men came up. "That's your dog, isn't it?" one of them remarked to the keeper. "I left him there on guard," Hopp replied, for he was ashamed to confess the truth. But what was the use? It all came out when the corpse was put in the cart and driven away and Krambambuli trotted behind it with his head down and his tail between his legs. Next day the court usher saw him hanging about the mortuary, where the body of the Yellow-skin had been laid out. He gave him a kick and told him to go home. Krambambuli showed his teeth and ran away in the direction of the keeper's cottage, the man said. But he never got there. He led a wretched vagabond life.

He slunk about the outskirts of the village, where the poorer cottagers lived, in a half wild state until he was reduced to skin and bone. One day he rushed out at a child outside a cottage on the extreme edge of the village and greedily snatched from his hand the piece of bread he was eating. The child was transfixed with fright, but a little Pomeranian ran out of the cottage and barked at the thief, who let his plunder drop and ran away.

That night Hopp was standing at the window before going to bed and looking out into the starlit summer night. He thought he saw his dog sitting at the edge of the wood across the meadow, gazing fixedly and yearningly at the scene of his past happiness--the truest of the true, homeless and masterless.

The keeper shut the window and went to bed. But after a time he got up and went back to the window--the dog was no longer there. He lay down and tried to sleep and again could find no rest. He could stand it no longer. Let bygones be bygones--he could stand it no longer without his dog. I'll fetch him home, he thought, and as soon as he came to this decision he felt a new man. He put on his clothes at daybreak, told his wife not to wait dinner for him and hurried out. But as he opened the door his journey was ended. His foot kicked against a body on the doorstep. It was Krambambuli, dead, with his head pressed to the threshold he had not dared to cross again.

The gamekeeper never got over his grief. His happiest moments were those in which he forgot that he had lost him. Then sunk in happy memories he hummed his famous "What's my Krambambuli . . ." But stopping in the middle, he shook his head and said with a deep sigh: "Pity about that dog."

 
           

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