Serendipity - The Death of Christoph Detlev Brigge of Ulsgard by Rainer Maria Rilke

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The Death of Christoph Detlev Brigge of Ulsgard
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Whenever I think of home, where there is no one left any more, than I imagine it must have been different in former times. In those days people knew (or at least they sensed) that they had death inside them, as the fruit has its seed. Children had a small death inside them, adults a large one. The women had it in their womb and the men in their chest. They had it there, and that gave them a peculiar dignity and quiet pride.

With my grandfather, the old chamberlain, you could still tell just by looking at him that he bore his death within him. And what a death it was: it lasted for two months, and was so loud that it could be heard on the outlying parts of the estate.

The long, narrow manor house was too small for this death, it looked as if we would have to add wings, for the chamberlain's body grew bigger and bigger and he was constantly demanding to be carried from one room to another and would fall into a dreadful rage if the day was not yet over and there was no room left in which he had not already lain. Then off up the stairs went the whole processions—servants, maids and dogs, which he always had about him—led by the steward, into the room in which his mother had died, which had been kept exactly in the state in which she had left it, twenty-three years ago, and which no one had been allowed to enter since. The curtains were opened, and the sturdy light of a summer afternoon examined all the shy, startled objects and pirouetted clumsily in the gaping mirrors. And the people were just the same. There were lady's maids whose curiosity was so aroused that they had no idea where their hands were, young servants who stared at everything, and old servants who went round trying to remember all the things they had been told about this locked room, where they now had the good fortune to find themselves.

But it was the dogs above all, who seemed to be uncommonly excited at being in a room in which all the things smelt. The tall, slender Russian greyhounds ran busily to and fro behind the armchairs, traversed the chamber with their long, rocking dance-steps, stood up like dogs on a coat of arms and, resting their slim paws on the white and gold window-sill, looked with pointed, expectant faces and receding foreheads to the right and to the left down into the courtyard. Little dachshunds, the colour of new gloves, sat in the broad, silk-covered chair by the window, an expression on their faces as if everything was as usual, and a bristle-haired, grumpy-looking pointer rubbed its back against the edge of a gold-legged table whilst on the painted top the Sèvres cups trembled.

It was a terrible time for those absent-minded, sleepy objects. It sometimes happened that books would be opened clumsily by some hasty hand and rose petals would tumble out, to be trampled underfoot; tiny, delicate things were grasped and, when they immediately broke, were quickly put back down again, some objects that had been bent were put behind curtains, or even thrown behind the golden trellis of the fireguard. And from time to time something fell, fell with a thud onto the carpet, with a ringing crack onto the parquet, but it broke on the spot, it shattered with a sharp crash or split almost noiselessly, for those things, pampered as they were, could not stand the least fall.

And had it occurred to anyone to ask what was the cause of all this, what had called down this wealth of destruction on that room, that had been so anxiously guarded, then there would have been one answer alone: death.

The death of the chamberlain, Christoph Detlev Brigge of Ulsgard. For he, bulging hugely out of his dark blue uniform, was lying in the middle of the floor and not moving. The eyes in his large, alien, unrecognisable face were closed; he did not see what was happening. At first they had tried to lay him on the bed, but he had resisted, for he had come to hate beds since those first nights in which his illness had grown. Also, the bed up in that room had turned out to be too small, and there had been nothing left but to put him down on the carpet; he had refused to go downstairs again.

There he lay, and one might have thought he had died already. As it was slowly beginning to get dark, the dogs, one after the other, had left through the half-open door, only the wire-haired pointer with the grumpy expression was sitting beside his master, and one of his broad, shaggy paws lay on Christoph Detlev's large grey hand. Now, too, most of the servants were outside in the white corridor, where it was lighter than in the room; those, however, who had stayed in the room, darted occasional, covert glances at the huge, darkening heap in the middle, wishing that it were nothing more than a large suit of clothes over some broken thing.

But there was still something. There was a voice, the voice that no one had known seven weeks ago. It was not Christoph Detlev, to whom this voice belonged, it was Christoph Detlev's death.

For many, many days now, Christov Detlev's death had been living at Ulsgard, and talking to everyone, and demanding. It demanded to be carried, demanded the Blue Room, demanded the small salon, demanded that they laugh, talk, play and be quiet and all at the same time. Demanded to see friends, women and men who had died, and demanded to die itself: demanded. Demanded and screamed.

For, when the night had come and those of the exhausted servants who were not sitting at his bedside were trying to get to sleep, Christoph Detlev's death would scream, scream and groan and roar so long and so incessantly that the dogs, which at first joined in with their howls, fell silent and did not dare lie down and, standing on their long, slim, quivering legs, were afraid. And when, across the wide, silver, Danish summer night, those in the village heard his roaring, they got out of bed, as they did during a storm, dressed and stayed sitting round a lamp without saying a word until it was past. And pregnant women who were close to their time were put into the farthest rooms and into the cupboard beds behind the most solid doors; but they heard it, they heard it as if it were in their own bodies, and they begged to be allowed to get up, and came, white and wide-eyed, and sat down with the others with their blurred faces. And the cows that were calving at the time were helpless and withdrawn, and one foetus that refused to come was torn, death with all the entrails from the cow's body. And all did their daily tasks badly and forgot to bring in the hay, because during the day they feared the night and because they were so weary from being startled into wakefulness and staying up for so long that they could not concentrate on anything. And when they went to the white, peaceful church on Sunday they prayed there might be no more Lord of Ulsgard, for this lord was a terrible lord. And from the pulpit the minister proclaimed aloud what they were all thinking and praying, for he too had lost his nights and could not understand God. And it was proclaimed by the bell, which had found a fearful rival which sounded the whole night through and against which it was powerless, even if it set all its metal ringing. Everyone proclaimed it, and there was one of the young men who had dreamt he went to the castle and murdered the master with his dung-fork, and they were all so incensed, so overwrought, that they all listened as he told his dream, and, without at all realising it, looked at him to see if he were up to such a deed. That was what people felt and said in the whole area where a few weeks before everyone had loved the chamberlain and felt sorry for him. But although that was what people said, nothing was changed. Christoph Detlev's death, that was residing at Ulsgard, refused to be rushed. It had come for ten weeks, and ten weeks it stayed. And during those weeks it was more of a lord than Christoph Detlev Brigge had even been, it was like a king people call 'the Terrible', later on and for ever.

It was not the death of some ordinary man with the dropsy, this was the evil, princely death that the chamberlain had borne within him throughout his life and nourished with his own substance. All the excess of pride, will power and lordly strength, which he had been unable to use up, even in his calm days, had entered into the death that now sat at Ulsgard, squandering.

What a look would the chamberlain have given any man who had demanded he should die a different death than this one. He died a hard death.

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About the author

Rainer Maria Rilke (also Rainer Maria von Rilke)was a very anxious German man who was fond of the Swiss. He's dead now. His more famous works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

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