Kleist has remained a solitary figure in German literature. Owing little to the dominant literary influences of his day, he has also found few imitators. Two generations passed before he began to come into his heritage of legitimate fame. Now that a full century has elapsed since his tragic death, his place is well assured among the greatest dramatic and narrative authors of Germany. A brave man struggling desperately against hopeless odds, a patriot expending his genius with lavish unselfishness for the service of his country in her darkest days, he has been found worthy by posterity to stand as the most famous son of a faithful Prussian family of soldiers.
MICHAEL KOHLHAAS (1808)
A Tale from an Old Chronicle
TRANSLATED BY FRANCES A. KING
Toward the middle of the sixteenth century there lived on the banks of the river Havel a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a school-master, one of the most upright and, at the same time, one of the most terrible men of his day. Up to his thirtieth year this extraordinary man would have been considered the model of a good citizen. In a village which still bears his name, he owned a farmstead on which he quietly supported himself by plying his trade. The children with whom his wife presented him were brought up in the fear of God, and taught to be industrious and honest; nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice. In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue—his sense of justice, which made of him a robber and a murderer.
He rode abroad once with a string of young horses, all well fed and glossy-coated, and was turning over in his mind how he would employ the profit that he hoped to make from them at the fairs; part of it, as is the way with good managers, he would use to gain future profits, but he would also spend part of it in the enjoyment of the present. While thus engaged he reached the Elbe, and near a stately castle, situated on Saxon territory, he came upon a toll-bar which he had never found on this road before. Just in the midst of a heavy shower he halted with his horses and called to the toll-gate keeper, who soon after showed his surly face at the window. The horse-dealer told him to open the gate. “What new arrangement is this?” he asked, when the toll-gatherer, after some time, finally came out of the house.
“Seignorial privilege” answered the latter, unlocking the gate, “conferred by the sovereign upon Squire Wenzel Tronka.”
“Is that so?” queried Kohlhaas; “the Squire’s name is now Wenzel?” and gazed at the castle, the glittering battlements of which looked out over the field. “Is the old gentleman dead?”
“Died of apoplexy,” answered the gate keeper, as he raised the toll-bar.