Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, November 23, 2021


 "The Red Dwarf of Rabenstein" by William Waldorf Astor  (first published in The Pall Mall Magazine #26, June 1895; reprinted in Astor's collection Pharaoh's Daughter and Other Stories, 1900)

William Waldorf Astor, the 1st Viscount Astor. (1848-1919), was the only child of John Jacob Astor II; upon his father's death, Willie (as he was known) became the richest man in America.  After prcticing law for a short time, Willie decided his true calling was politics and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1878 and the New York State Senate in 1880 and 1881; he was aided in his career by chester Conklin, the powerful boss of the state's Republican machine.  In 1881 he ran for the United States Congress but was defeated.  A second run also ended in defeat.  Disillusioned and upset at the political attacks on his character, Willie quit politics, but in 1882, President Chester A. Arthur appointed him Ambassador to Italy, a post he held for three years.  

After his father's death, he began work on the Waldolf Hotel on the site of his previous home in New York City.  His aunt, who lived in the mansion next to it, complained about the commercial building next door.  Her son Jack convinced her to move, then used her site to build the Astoria Hotel.  There was some family friction with his aunt declaring that she -- and not Willie's wife Mary -- was the Mrs. Astor in New York Society.  Willie and his family moved to England, where he put down roots.  Somewhat shy, he decided to avoid the public by fking his own death in 1893, having his servents report that he had died of pneumonia.  The ruse was uncovered and he was mercilessly roasted in the British press.  Among his business acquisitions were The Pall Mall Gazette (Estanlishing The Pall Mall Magazine a year later) and The Observer.  He purchased the Hever Castle Estate in 1903, where Anne Bolyn had lived as a child, and gave his previous estate, Cliveden, to his eldest son Waldolf and his new bride.  (Waldorf's wife, Nancy, went on to become the first seated female Member of Parliament).

Willie had become an British citizen in 1899 and was a heavy charitable donor.  For his charitable work, he became the Baron  Astoer of Hever Castle in 1916.  A year later he was elevated to Viscount, a move that caused some controversy with many saying that the rich American had bought his way into the english aristocracy.

He died at age 71 of a heart attack while in his lavatory.

In addition to his philanthrpoic and busness interests, Willie wrote and published two historical romance novels and one collection of twelve short stories.  In all, Willie published at least twenty-six stories and six articles in his career -- all but one appearing in his own magazine,  The Pall Mall Magazine.

(William Astor should not be confused with his relative John Jacob Astor IV, who wrote the science fiction novel A Journey on Other Worlds:  A Romance of the Future, 1894; this Astor died on the Titanic in 1912.)

"The Red Dwarf of Rabenstein" opens with the title character arriving at the partially restored ruins of Rabenstein Castle.  He had just been named the warder of the castle by the owner, the hochwohlgeboren Herr von Flulen, a remote descendent of the Rabensteins.  In addition to his dwarfism, the young man's body was misshapened and his face bore the marks of a life that made him a pariah.  To add to his unfortunate circumstaances, his name was Wolfgang Judassohn, a sinister name that drew many taunts in childhood.  He had an isolated and bitter childhood, born into poverty, mistreated by his father, and scorned by the young girls he admired.  Wolfgang's only solace came from books, especially older romances and poetry;  Guenivere, Elaine, and Morgan Le Fay stoked his heart, while Launcelot, Gawain, and Merlin formed his view of heroes.

Rabenstein Castle had a bloody and sad history.  It had been stormed by the French in the late seventeenth century, its people killed or captured, the Countess Rabenstein hurling herself from a tower to be crushed on the rocks below, the estate looted, and the place set afire.  There were rumors of a vast treasure at the castle and when the French discovered a large locked door they believed they had come across the castle's riches, but when the door was forced open it revealed only a large stone wall.  Angered, the French then slit the throats of those few they had captured.  Only the walls and the outline of the original rooms remained.  Herr von Flulen, himself far from rich, rebuilt a few room in the castle and employed a housekeeper and a cook to stay there.  Von Flunen and his daughter would visit the castle twice a year for a single week only.  And now Wolfgang was added to supervise the estate.

When they came for their first visit during Wolfgang's tenure, the gnadiges Fraulein Gisela proved to be a beautiful yet imperious young woman.  For some reason, she enjoyed taling with Wolgang, who, for his part, would sometimes unconsciously reoly in a manner above his station.  Slowly he learned that the girl was engaged and would be married as soon as her betrothed has enough money to comfortably suppoert them.  Von Flulen, meanwhile, was wistful in his hopes that the rumored treasure of the castle was actually existed.  Such a treasure trove would solve many of his problems.  Wolfgang determined to find the treasure.

For months he searched every possible hiding place, ripping up and replacing floors and measuring the walls, cupboards, and nooks of the castle hoping to find a disparity that might indicate the treasure.  The housekeeper and the maid became distraught at his actions, thinking he had gone mad.  Then one evening, it struck him where the treasure might be.  Rushing downstairs, he pushed the two servants aside.  They became fearful and immediately sent word to von Flulin that his warder had gone mad.

The next day, von Flulin and Gisela arrived to take control of the situation.  They found a big hole where the French had once hoped to find the treasure.  Then a bedraggled, dirty Wolfgang popped his hear out, crying that he had found the treasure.  Indeed he did -- "great heaps of money amid shreds of leather purses, a chest of silver coins, jewelled crucifixes, women's bracelets, gems plucked from their settings, gold chains and fillets, a score of diamonds..."

Von Flulin restored the castle, gave a large dowry to Gisela, distributed money among the poor, and gave Wolfgang a large purse of gold and promoted him to seneschal of Rabenstein for life and doubled his salary.  The rest of his largess he invested (quite successfully) in American railroads.  Gisela had even allowed Wolfgang to kiss her hand.

Now married, Gisela and her husband, Count Aura, travelled to Rabenstein for their honeymoon.  But Wolfgang was not there.  He had packed his things, said sad goodbyes to the housekeeper and the cook, and sailed down the Rhine to no one knew where.  Gisela looked ut the window of her room and saw a large group of tiny flowers blooming. vergissmeinicht -- forget-me-nots.

Sometimes what the heart wants is impossible to attain.

Pharaoh's Daughter and Other Stories is available for reading on the internet.


  1. Sometimes what the hear wants is impossible to attain, but if you try sometime you might find you get what you need.