Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, November 9, 2022


 "The Severed Hand"  by Wilhelm Hauff (first published in Hauff's collection Marchen-Almanack auf da Jarh 1826 fur Sohne und Tochter  Gebildeter Stande, 1825; published in English as The Caravan, and Other Tales, 1840; reprinted many times)

Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827 -- he died, of typhoid, nine days short of his 25th birthday) wa a German writer and poet, some of whose work has become enshrined in German.  His early education was primarily from books in his maternal grandmother's library.  He eventually went to the University of Tubingen, completing his studies in philosophy and theology at the Tubingen Stilf in 1824.  After leaving the University, Huff was hired as tutor to the children of the Wurttenberg minister of war; to amuse the children he wrote a number of fairy tales, several of which remain very popular in Germany.  Most of these stories took place either in the Orient or in Germany -- a dicotomy that can be seen in much of his writing.  He went on to write parodies of the workss of the popular, but mawkish, German author Heinrich Clauren, then published a best-selling historical novel tribute to Sir Walter Scott.  He then published a few short novels -- including his masterpiece, The Wine-Ghosts of Bremen -- and a number of poems which have become part of the German Volkslieder.  Ten months before he died, Hauff became editor of the Stuttgart Morgenblatt; nine months before he died, Hauff married his cousin Luise.  Hauff's antisemetic novella Suss the Jew (1827)  was filmed as a propaganda piece by the Nazis in 1940.

Hauff's Caravan Tales contains six stories about the "Caravan;" a further non-"Caravan" story was included.  "The Severed Hand" ("Die Geschtichte von der abgehauenen Hand") was the third of these tales.

Zaleukos was the only son of a successful merchant in Constantinople.  Because of his cleverness, it was determined that he would study medicine in Paris rather than join his father in business.  After three years of study and having learned all that the medical trade could teach him, Zaleukos returned to 
Constantinople, looking forward to a reunion with his father, only to discover that his father had died two month earlier and that all his wealth had been "donated" to the church.  Now, possessing only meager funds gained from the sale of his father's home, Zaleukos purchased purchaed a number of oriental good that were not available in Europe, the young man began criss-crossing the continent as a merchant.  His reputation for fairness as well as the quality of his merchandise made him a success and he eventually decided to put down roots in Florence, opening a shop offering his services as both a physician and a merchant.  Both avenues of his business thrived.

One day he received an anonymous messsage asking him to meet on a local bridge that midnight.  there he met a man wearing a glorious red cape but who keept his face and features hidden.  The man insisted that Zaleukos follow him.  Zaleukos first demanded an explanation but, hen the man refused to answer, Zaleukos grabbed him by the arm, demanding an answer.  there was a struggle and the man got away, leaving the young physician/merchant holding the stranger's cape.  The cape was of a sort that Zaleukos had never seen before, but it was obviously very costly.  Zaleukos put the cape around his shoulder and returned home.  On the way a stranger, hidden by the night fog, approached him and whispered, "Be on your guard, Count, there is nothing to be done to-nite."   Then the stranger vanished, having obviouly mistaken Zaleukos for the true owner of the cape.

Efforts to find the mysterious owner were in vain.  Then another anonymous message -- this one somehow appearing in the lining of the cape.  It told Zaleukos to once again meet him on the bridge and the owner would give him 400 zachinos for the cape.  Well, 400 zachinos are a lot of zachinos, so our hapless hero went.  There he was told by the man that he needed Zaleukos's medical expertise.   The man and his sister were lately arrived to Florence and the sister had suddenly taken ill and died.  Local relatives wanted her quickly embalmed and buried.

Just a word of warning:  here's where the tale goes full-stop from strange territory to uber-Weirdsville.  Brace yourselves.

The stranger wants Zaleukos to sever his sister's head so that he can take it back to his father in order for his father to view her one last time.

Say what?

Zaleukos figures the request is a bit odd, but money is money and, after all, the girl is dead, right?

The stranger takes Zaleukos into a room where the girl's body is lying down, a sheet covering all but her head.  She is young.  She is beautiful.  She is dead.  He takes out his scapel to remove the head and makes a quick deep cut across her neck.

Surprise!  She opens her eyes.  She is not dead!  But, thanks to the young doctor's precise cut she soon is.  Zaleukos turns to confront her "brother," but he has vanished and our pitiful protagonist realizes that he has been used to commit murder.  He hightails it out of there.  In his panic he has left his medical implements at the scene.

By the next morning all of Florence is agog at the horrendous crime.  The most beautiful and the most popular young woman in the city -- "the fairest flower in Florence," Bianca, the daughter of the governor -- has been brutally murdered, and just one day after she had been married!

So, I hear you ask, "Why is the story called "The Severed Hand" instead of "The Severed Head"?  Well, hang on.  There's more.

Zaleukos is brought to trial.  His story is incredible.  The evidence (much of which appears to have been conveniently manufactured) is damning.  He is found guilty and is sentenced to die.  Then what arrives is not a deus ex machina, but a deus ex Paris.  An old student friend happened to be in Florence and heard of Zaleukos's crime and plight.  Zaleukos tells him all that had transpired.  The friend goes to see what he can do.  What he was able to do was to lessen the punishment.  Justice appears to work strangely in Florence.  Instead of losing his head, Zaleukos will have his hand severed, his wealth seized, and will be forever banned from the city.

After he recovers from losing his hand, his friend gives him a little money and sends him on his way.  Zaleukos, now a completely ruined man, makes his way back to Constantinople.  There he discovers an invisible benefactor.  The man behind the entire plot sets him up in a large house and business and gives hi an annuity.  Zaleukos never learns who the man is or why the crime was committed.  But he lives the rest of his life in prosperity.  Minus one hand, of course.

Make of this story what you will, but I can't help you.  My head is still spinning.

**I should note that this is the 6666th post on this blog.  That's ten Numbers of the Beast.**

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