Death on Ulsgaard

by Rainer Maria Rilke
Gertrude Weihs and Peter Bailey translation

This publication of Death on Ulsgaard is by Chris Church.

When I think of the deserted home of my childhood, I believe that all must have been different. Earlier, it was not as it comes to us through memory. We knew, or at least had a premonition, that we held death in us, like the fruit its stone. Children held a small one, adults a large one; the women had it in their laps, and the men in their breasts. But it was there, and it gave life a proper dignity and a silent pride.

In the house of my childhood, in my old grandfather, the manor lord, a death lived. And what manner of death was it, two months long, and so loud it could be heard in the farthest precinct of the fields?

The long, old manor-house was too small for this death, so it seemed that we would be forced to build another wing as the body of the old lord grew taller and thinner, and he continually demanded to be carried from one room to another. He became frightfully angry if the day had drawn to its close and he had not lain in every room. Thus it was that his entire staff went, the servants, maids, and dogs he always had around him, up the stairs, with the housekeeper in front, into the room of his honored mother. The room was in the same condition as she had left it twenty-three years before, and no one was allowed to enter. But, now, the whole pack of hounds breaks in. The curtains are drawn back, and the rough light of summer noon inquires the time of day from all the shy, retiring objects. The sun looks at itself clumsily in the gilt mirrors, and the people do the same. There are ladies’ maids so full of curiosity they do not know where to fling up their hands next, young servants who stare at everything, and elder servants who walk around trying to recall what they had been told about this closed room which they had finally entered.

But the dogs feel the most intense interest for this room where all things smell infinitely exciting. The tall, narrow Russian wolf-hounds run busily here and there behind armchairs, walking in long dancing-steps with soft movements through the room, raising up like dogs on a coat-of-arms to lean their tiny paws on white-golden window sills. Drawing their heads to the left and to the right, their pointed, stretched faces gaze out into the courtyard.

Little, yellow-colored dachshunds, yellow-colored like gloves, sit with composed faces in the broad, silk cushions on the window-seat, and a wire-haired terrier rubs his back on the edge of a golden-legged table which holds trembling tea cups from Sevres. Yes, it is a terrible moment for these absent-minded, sleepy objects in this room. From the pages of books opened by a hasty, clumsy hand, rose leaves tumble and are crushed underfoot. Little feeble objects are taken up; then quickly replaced after they are broken, some being secretly hidden under curtains or thrown behind the golden net of the chimney-fence. From time to time something falls, falls unheard on the carpet or clearly on the parquet, shatters, cracks sharply or breaks almost silently, because these objects, spoiled as they are, abhor the idea of falling.

And if one would like to know the reason for all this, what has brought on all this falling in the anxious, guarded room—he will find one answer: death. The death of the manor-lord, Christoph Detler Brigge of Ulsgaard, which lies, huge and overswelled, all about his dark-blue uniformed figure in the middle of the floor and does not move. The eyelids are closed in his great strange face (which no one recognizes any longer) and he does not see what happens. The servants had tried at first to place him on the bed, but he did not want it, for he has hated beds since the first nights his illness had grown up. His mother’s bed was too short for his great frame, anyway, so there was nothing to do but place him on the carpet, for he refused to go downstairs.

There he lay, and one might think he was dead. It began to grow dusky, and the dogs withdrew between the tall half-closed doors. The terrier with the surly face remained to sit with his master, with one of his great paws resting on the great, gray hand of Christoph Detler Brigge.

Most of the attendants now stood outside in the white gallery, which was brighter than the room; those who stayed inside sometimes looked secretly at the great dark heap in the center of the room and wished it would be nothing more than a big suit tossed over a spoiled thing…But there was something else. It was a voice, the voice which no one had known seven weeks before, for it was not the voice of the manor lord. It was not Christoph Detler Brigge to whom this voice belonged, but to the death of Christoph Brigge.

This death had now for many many days lived on Ulsgaard and spoke with all and wanted. Wanted to be carried, wanted the blue room, wanted the little salon, wanted the salon, wanted the dogs, wanted the people to laugh, talk, play, and be quiet all together, wanted to see friends, women, and dead people, and wanted himself to die: wanted, wanted, and cried.

When the nights came and those of the servants who were exhausted and had no guard tried to sleep, then the death of Christoph Detler cried, cried and groaned, roared so long and continuously that the dogs, at first howling too, were silent and did not dare to lie down, but stood frightened on their long, slender, trembling legs.

And in the village when they heard through the wide silver summer night of Denmark the roaring of Christoph, the people got up, as they did in a thunderstorm, dressed themselves, and stayed sitting around their lamps until it had gone by. They placed the women who were near childbirth in the most distant bed-box, but the women heard the roar, heard it as if they were in their own bodies, and came, white and large, and sat down with the others, with their indistinct faces. Even the cows which calved at this time were helpless and difficult, and one of them had a stillbirth. The dead fruit had to be removed from the body with all the intestines, as it would not come.

The farmers did their chores badly and forgot to bring the hay in, because during the day they were anxious for night and all were so faint from the frightened standing up that they could not concentrate on anything. On Sunday, when they went up into the white, peaceful church, they prayed there might be no longer such a lord on Ulsgaard, for he was a terrible lord. All that the people thought and prayed for, their parson spoke for them in his pulpit, for he, too, had no nights to himself, and could understand God no longer. The bell cried out, too, against its frightful new rival who roared the whole night, and against whom the bell could do nothing, even if it rang with the whole of its metal. Yes, all things cried out, and there was one among the young people who dreamt that he had gone into the manor house and had killed the gracious lord with his dung-fork. Everyone was so angry and, in the end, so over-excited that they listened as he told his dream, and looked at him without knowing whether or not he was capable of such a deed. So went the feelings and talk in the entire neighborhood in which only a few weeks before the manor lord was liked and respected. But no matter how one talked, there was no change. Christoph Detler’s death, who lived on Ulsgaard, did not like to be hurried. He had come for ten weeks, and these he stayed. During this time, he was more lord than Christoph Detler had ever been; he was like a king, a horrible king.

This was not the death of a kind and gentle man, but the evil and masterful death which the manor lord had carried and nourished his entire life. Every excess of pride, will and domination which he had not been able to consume during his quiet life was planted now in his death, in the death which sat now on Ulsgaard and wasted. How would the manor-lord Brigge have faced one who demanded he die another death than this one? He died a hard death.

When I think of others whom I have seen or those I have heard of, it is always the same. They all have had their own deaths. The men who carried it in their armour, inside, like a prisoner; the women who grew very old and little, and then on an enormous bed, as though on exhibition, before the entire family, the servants, and the pets, discreetly and masterfully passed away. Yes, the children, even the little ones, had no child’s death. They gathered together and died all that they already were and all that they would have been.

And is there not a melancholy beauty which surrounds women who are pregnant when they stand, their small hands involuntarily still resting on their big bodies which contain two fruits, a child and a death? Does not that thick, heavily-nourished smile, which covers the whole, empty face, come from the occasionally realized knowledge that both the fruits will grow?




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Copyright © 2000 by Peter Bailey