Friday, 18 November 2011

One Word Leads to Another

by Johann Peter Hebel

A rich man in Swabia sent his son to Paris to learn French and a few manners. After a year or more his father's farmhand came to see him. The son was greatly surprised and cried out joyfully, "Hans, whatever are you doing here? How are things at home, what's the news?"

"Nothing much, Mr William, though your fine raven copped it two weeks ago, the one the gamekeeper gave you."

"Oh, the poor bird," replied Mr William. "What happened to it?"

"Well, you see, he ate too much carrion when our fine horses died one after the other. I said he would."

"What? My father's four fine greys are dead?" Mr William asked. "How did that happen?"

"Well, you see, they were worked too hard hauling water when the house and the barns burned down, and it did no good."

"Oh no!" exclaimed Mr William, horrified. "Our house burnt down? When was that?"

"Well, you see, nobody thought of a fire when your father lay in his coffin. He was buried at night with torches. A small spark soon spreads."

"That's terrible news!" exclaimed Mr William in his distress. "My father dead? And how is my sister?"

"Well, you see, your late father died of grief when the young Miss had a child and no father for it. It's a boy."

"There's nothing much else to tell," he added.

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) is best known for his collection of stories, The Treasure Chest, published in 1811 and a firm favourite of Kafka, Canetti, Heidegger and others. He spent most of his life as a teacher but won success not only as a prose writer but also a poet. His prose work marks a definite stage in the evolution of the short story as an artform.