The Beggar Woman of Locarno

Heinrich von Kleist

At the foot of the Alps, near Locarno in Upper Italy, stood once a castle, the property of a marquis; of this castle, as one goes southward from the St. Gotthard, one sees now only the ashes and ruins. In one of its high and spacious rooms there once lay, on a bundle of straw which had been thrown down for her, an old, sick woman, who had come begging to the door, and had been taken in and given shelter out of pity by the mistress of the castle.

The Marquis, returning from the hunt, happened to enter this room, where he usually kept his guns, while the old woman lay there, and angrily ordered her to come out of the corner where the bundle of straw had been placed and to get behind the stove. In rising the old woman slipped on the polished floor and injured her spine severely; so much did she hurt herself that only with unspeakable agony could she manage to cross the room, as she was ordered, to sink moaning behind the stove and there to die.

Some years later the Marquis, owing to war and bad harvests, having lost most of his fortune, decided to sell his estates. One day a nobleman from Florence arrived at the castle which, on account of its beautiful situation, he wished to buy. The Marquis, who was very anxious to bring the business to a successful conclusion, gave instructions to his wife to prepare for their guest the above-mentioned room, which was now very beautifully furnished.

But imagine their horror when, in the middle of the night, the nobleman, pale and distracted, entered their room, solemnly assuring them that his room was haunted by something which was not visible, but which sounded as if somebody lying on straw in one corner of the room got up and slowly and feebly but with distinct steps crossed the room to lie down moaning and groaning behind the stove.

The Marquis, horrified, he did not himself know why, laughed with forced merriment at the nobleman and said he would get up at once and keep him company for the rest of the night in the haunted room. But the nobleman begged to be allowed to spend the rest of the night in another room, and when the morning came he ordered his horses to be brought round, bade farewell, and departed.

This incident, which created a great sensation, unhappily for the Marquis frightened away several would-be buyers; and when amongst his own servants strangely and mysteriously the rumor arose that queer things happened in the room at midnight, he determined to make a definite stand in the matter and to investigate it himself the same night.

For that reason he had his bed moved into the room at twilight, and watched there without sleeping until midnight. To his horror, as the clock began to strike midnight, he became aware of the mysterious noise; it sounded as though somebody rose from straw which rustled beneath him, crossed the room, and sank down sighing and groaning behind the stove. The next morning when he came downstairs his wife inquired what he had discovered; he looked round with nervous and troubled glances, and after fastening the door assured her that the rumor was true. The Marquise was more terrified than ever in her life, and begged him, before the rumor grew, to make a cold-blooded trial in her company.

Accompanied by a loyal servant, they spent the following night in the room and heard the same ghostly noises; and only the pressing need to get rid of the castle at any cost enabled the Marquise in the presence of the servant to smother the terror which she felt, and to put the noise down to some ordinary and casual event which it would be easy to discover.

On the evening of the third day, as both of them, with beating hearts, went up the stairs to the guestroom, anxious to get at the cause of the disturbance, they found that the watch-dog, who happened to have been let off his chain, was standing at the door of the room; so that, without giving a definite reason, both perhaps unconsciously wishing to have another living thing in the room besides themselves, they took him into the room with them. About eleven o'clock the two of them, two candles on the table, the Marquise fully dressed, the Marquis with dagger and pistol which he had taken from the cupboard beside him, sat down one on each bed; and while they entertained one another as well as they could by talking, the dog lay down, his head on his paws, in the middle of the room and slept.

As the clock began to strike midnight the horrible sound began; somebody whom human eyes could not see raised himself on crutches in the corner of the room; the straw could be heard rustling beneath him; and at the first step the dog woke, pricked up his ears, rose from the ground growling and barking, and, just as though somebody were making straight for him, moved backwards towards the stove. At the sight the Marquise, her hair rising, rushed from the room, and while the Marquis, who had snatched up his dagger, called 'Who is there?' and received no answer, she, like a mad woman, had ordered the coach to be got out, determined to drive away to the town immediately. But before she had packed a few things together and got them out of the door she noticed that all round her the castle was in flames.

The Marquis, overcome with horror, and tired of life, had taken a candle and set fire to the wooden paneling on all sides. In vain she sent people in to rescue the wretched man; he had already found his end in the most horrible manner possible; and his white bones, gathered together by his people, still lie in that corner of the room from which he once ordered the beggar-woman of Locarno to rise.

Translation by E.K. Bennett

Versions --> German

© 1994-1999 Robert Godwin-Jones
Virginia Commonwealth University