The Desierto, or: One of Karl May’s many fortuitous coincidences …

The Desierto, or: One of Karl May’s many fortuitous coincidences …

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Excerpt from: From The Rio De La Plata To The Cordilleras—Book 2

Carlos and his friend, Pena, travel into the jungle of South America, where they meet a hermit, the desierto, who has chosen to live a life of penance for a crime he thought he committed. For this scene, Karl May drew on the war-laden history surrounding the lands between Denmark and Germany.

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The desierto sat down with us, but didn’t eat. When I asked him why, he replied:

“I eat only once a day at the most, I often fast for several days. Yes, there’s a certain time of the year when I won’t eat a meal for two weeks and only live on water.”

“But why?”

“As penance.”

I had expected a similar answer and said:
“Do you have the right to impose such punishment on yourself?”

“Not only the right, but also the duty. No punishment will be hard enough for me! You don’t know the severity of the crime I have on my conscience. You would have been surprised at the decoration in the first room. That’s my penance and punishment room. That’s where I starve myself and go without water, where I am cold and where I flagellate myself. I’ve committed an awful deed; you wouldn’t be able to guess what it is.”

“No? I believe you’re a murderer.”

“Oh, God!” he exclaimed. “Who told you that?”

“My eyes, my mind. But let’s not talk about that affair!”

“Oh, yes! Let’s talk about it! We’re Germans. You’ve told me about yourself and are entitled to learn who and what I am.”

“I know that already. You’re a pharmacist.”

“What? Pharmacist? Senor, nobody is truly safe from you!”

“Pah! Anyone who looks around here with open eyes must know that I am correct.”

“A pharmacist! It is true. And a murderer! That is also true, senor! Aren’t you afraid of me? Aren’t you disgusted in me?”

“Wouldn’t think of it! God didn’t make me a judge over any fellow human beings. I’m probably a bigger sinner than you are and couldn’t compare my level of remorse with yours.”

“You have no idea of the immensity of my crime! I’ve deliberately killed a human being.”

“But in self-defence?”

“That would, perhaps, be the only excuse I would be able to apply. And yet, I am unable to prove to me or anyone else that it was self-defence. Allow me to tell you what happened.”

“You had better leave it be! You’re becoming distressed; you’re digging into old wounds.”

“So what if it is painful; I’ve deserved it. You said you know the story of Schleswig-Holstein. Do you also know how the German-minded inhabitants fared at the hands of the Danes?”

“Yes, from hundreds and hundreds of stories.”

“Then listen! I was a pharmacist in a small town, and was the only German-minded person among its entire Danish population. That explains much, but not everything. I won’t speak of the oppression, of the small as well as large sufferings I was forced to tolerate, without the permission to ever say a word about it. However, I became embittered to such an extent that my body seemed to exist only of venomous bile. The longer it went the clearer I felt that it couldn’t continue much longer before there was going to be a tragedy. Then came the war and with it Danish occupation. I was declared an enemy, of course, and I was subjected to double, even triple the harassment. My house swarmed with Danish soldiers from top to bottom, and they treated me as if I were a cannibal. I had to fight, literally, to even keep a small chamber, which I couldn’t give up because my beloved, fatally ill wife was lying in there, the only soul who understood and suffered with me. As a result of the continued suffering and distress, she had fallen victim to typhoid fever. I had to keep everything, everything away from her sickbed, if I wanted to have any hope of saving her life. In addition, a military physician and his servant arrived who demanded lodgings in my house. I proved to him that there was no more room; I begged and pleaded, but for naught! He examined my wife and declared that she only pretended to be ill. I sent for the captain in the medical corps, to ask for his intervention, but was called to the pharmacy where I was kept busy for a long time, so that I couldn’t take care of my wife. At last, I was finished and permitted to return home. When I arrived in the corridor, I heard a faint whimpering from the courtyard and went to investigate. The snow lay a foot high and the bitter cold almost froze one’s breath. Out there I found my wife. She was lying on the old blanket on which the yard dog used to sit. The soldiers were sharing her bed. I pulled my coat off, covered her up and wanted to go upstairs to see who had taken ownership of her room. She couldn’t talk, couldn’t answer my questions; but when she saw that I wanted to leave, she put her arms around me. I stayed with her for a few more minutes, until I felt that I had a corpse in my arms.”

The old man fell quiet. He rose and paced back and forth for a while to regain control over his emotions. Then, he continued:

“It would be useless to tell you what I felt. I was in a state best described as a mix of seething wrath and desperation. I ran up the stairs, snatched the door open and saw the physician lie on the sofa, with his dirty boots on his legs and my full cigar box on the table. I do not recall what I said; it won’t have been much because the anger made speaking difficult. He jumped up, punched me in the face, so that I saw stars, pushed the door open and pushed me down the stairs. He stood at the top and laughed at me. That’s when I lost the rest of my composure. I virtually leapt up the stairs again. I didn’t know what I was going to do; but I saw that he pulled the sabre. I quickly grabbed the weapon, wrenched it from him and ran it through him. When he silently collapsed, I thought my blood was going to stop running. It was fortunate that the soldiers weren’t there. I grabbed some money, rushed back down into the courtyard, lifted the dead woman up and carried her to the cleaning lady whom we employed occasionally. I gave her part of the money and asked her to see to the burial. Then, I fled.”

The way in which he recounted the events made a deep impression on me. The words came fast over his lips, but hacked apart. He stared into a corner of the room as if he was reliving what he was telling, as if he was his own witness and onlooker. We didn’t interrupt him. He continued:

“I hid in the forest for three days. I heard the deed told by people who walked past. The army had been mobilized to find and apprehend me. On the third day, during the night, I dared to visit the graveyard. I found the grave. It was shallow and barely covered. They had dug my wife into the ground like a criminal, like a suicide victim. I prayed but didn’t get to finish the prayer. They had suspected that I’d come to visit the grave and had posted a guard at the cemetery. He saw and shot at me, but didn’t hit. I fled and got away safely. When I got home to Germany* I went to see a friend who wouldn’t betray me. He gave me the means to go to America.”

*[Although Schleswig-Holstein is now part of Germany, Schleswig as well as Holstein at the southern end of the Jutland peninsula had for centuries been the subject of territorial disputes between Denmark, Prussia and Austria].

He paused again, and so I asked:
“Did you have any relatives, any children?”

“No, and that was fortunate. But the military physician I had killed was the father of four children and had to feed his father and his mother-in-law as well.”

“Did you know that?”

“No. I learnt of it during my escape. I read it in the newspaper, where also my particulars as a wanted man were printed.”

“And that’s the deed you regret so much?”

“Yes, that’s the one!”

“Have you never told yourself that there are several mitigating circumstances?”

“I did think about it. But the reasons are not sound.”

“He had pulled the sabre; he threatened you. You hadn’t intended to kill him.”

“But I have killed him, nevertheless. The terrible picture, as he was lying before me with the weapon in his body, has been with me, has accompanied me through my entire life and has not left me for one moment. It is in front of me by day and by night, and a thousand voices are calling: ‘Murderer, murderer, murderer!’ The blood of those who spill human blood must also be spilt. I’ve escaped that fate, but I’ve suffered a thousandfold death, because I die every day. Many years after those events, I ended up here and buried myself in solitude to live for my remorsefulness and penitence. I became the teacher and father of the Toba Indians, and began to do good, so that God will write off some of my guilt. I also did my best to decrease my debt in my home country. I remembered the name and place of residence of the dead man and sent as much money as I could save up to his relatives, who had lost their breadwinner through me.”

Although the old man’s story had captivated me, Pena had listened with even greater interest. His expressions were unusually animated. He grabbed his hair, rubbed his nose, scratched himself in different spots. In short, he revealed an unusual sympathy for the old man. With the words the desierto spoke last—about sending money—Pena became even more attentive and asked:

“What? You’ve sent money?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re still doing it?”

“Yes. I must consider myself as being the breadwinner for the family.”

“And how does the money get over there?”

“From Buenos Aires. Every year, when I go to Santiago, I send a transfer there.”

At that point, Pena jumped up and exclaimed:

“By all Saints, I thought so! Mr…Mr…Mr Winter, that’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Alfred Winter.”

“Alright, Mr Winter, save your money! You have nothing to pay.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“I say it clearly enough! You have nothing to pay. You’re not a murderer!” He hollered at the old man as if he wanted to devour him. The desierto, on the other hand, stared at him and couldn’t get a word out; he only shook his head.

“Go on, shake your head!” Pena continued. “It is so and won’t change. You didn’t kill him.”

“But I have stabbed him!”

“That’s possible! But he wasn’t dead!”

“It was in the newspapers!”

“Bah humbug, newspapers! Printer’s ink takes anything. Much of what’s been printed has caused one’s chin to drop and throw one’s hands up in surprise!”

He had blurted all that out like a veritable bigmouth, which he really wasn’t. A hidden joy was glowing from his eyes and he was only rude so as not having to burst out with the truth all at once. When the old man gave him another blank look, he continued:

“Have you been back to Schleswig-Holstein since that time?”

“No.”

“Or have you enquired about the circumstances of that family?”

“Not either.”

“Well, I’ll roast a stork! But, senor, what sort of person are you? Every year you send such a pile of money to people you don’t know, and of whom you don’t even know whether they’re alive or dead?”

“The descendants definitely still live, and I’ve got to consider myself to be their provider.”

“Provide for whom you like, but not for those people!”

“It was written in the wanted circular and also in the newspapers!”

“Initially! Because they didn’t know any different. And because you’ve run away so fast, you’ve only read the first report. Had you only taken a peek at newspapers later on! Enough, I know the man, his name is Delmenborg.”

“My God!” the old man cried and shrunk back.

“Yes, yes!” the cascarillero continued, and triumphantly nodded. “Harald Delmenborg! Is that name correct?”

“Yes…yes…yes…it…is correct!”

“From Handsted on Jutland’s west coast. Is that correct also?”

“It is…correct…also!” the old man replied as if he were absent-minded.

“Alright! In that case we agree about the person. I think that we’ll also come to an understanding about the affair. Do you perhaps know of the Danish island St Thomas, up there, around the Danish Antilles*?”

*[Danish West Indies; today US Virgin Islands]

“Yes.”

“Very good! When I separated from my friend—the gentleman sitting next to me, whom I met in Mexico—I went to St Thomas; the reasons for that are unimportant here. During my stay there, I met a young person, half a good-for-nothing who called himself a doctor, but had no patients and yet enjoyed a splendid life. His name was Knut Delmenborg and he befriended me because he had heard that I was a gold prospector and had found a rich bonanza. We met a few times, had a drink or two, and another, and another, until dear Knut was legless and told me his life’s story.”

“Go on, go on!” the desierto called out breathlessly when Pena paused.

“What, go on? There’s not much more to tell. You know the story, too. His father had been stabbed by a pharmacist and remained in a death-like state for about three or four days. But then, the lockjaw, which had rendered fortuitous assistance in the examination of his wound and the changing of his bandages, left him; vital parts had not or only lightly been injured, and so, the stabbed man wandered back to his home in Handsted after a short time, quite healthy again. They weren’t looking for a murderer anymore. The justice system was content with having seized his property.”

At that point the old man jumped up, grabbed Pena’s hands and asked between short, sharp breaths:

“Senor, are you telling the truth?”

“You can stab me with a sabre, a piano or a sofa if only one of my words was a lie!”

“You’re not mistaken? Are you really referring to a certain Harald Delmenborg from Handsted?”

“The very same! Imagine his astonishment when, after two years had gone by, a thousand dollars arrived for his wife with the note that the money came from the murderer, who was going to send as much money as possible every year until his death! The son had studied with the aid of that money, but not learnt anything. He was probably useless and his father had sent him to the colonies, to sow his wild oats. That’s where he met me.”

“Do you swear that you have told me the truth, that you haven’t simply invented the story to make me happy?”

“I should actually be angry at you for this question; but, coincidentally, I’ve got a mellow hour and won’t stab you in punishment for this insult.”

With tears in his eyes, the old man ran out of the room. At that point, Pena’s face changed at once. A profound emotion became apparent and with a quivering, quiet voice he asked:

“What do you say to that?”

“God’s ways are wonderful! Can you see that?”

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