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The Dykemaster

What I am about to relate is something I lighted upon a good fifty years ago at the house of my great- grandmother, old Frau Senator Feddersen, as I sat by her armchair reading a magazine bound in a thick blue cover; I can no longer remember whether it was the "Leipzig Journal" or "Pappe's Hamburg Digest". I can still feel the caress of the over-eighty-year-old's gentle hand passing over her great-grandson's hair, and I still shudder with the horror of it. She and that era have long been buried; I have since tried to track down those pages, but in vain, and so I cannot guarantee the truth of the following account, nor could I vouch for the details should anyone wish to dispute them; I can only give my assurance that, although nothing has happened to call them back to mind, since that day I have never forgotten them.

*

It was in the third decade of the present century, on a October afternoon - so began the narrator of that time - when I rode along a North Friesian Dyke in fierce weather. For more than an hour the desolate mash, now cleared of all cattle, had been on my left, and on my right, uncomfortably close, the North Sea tidal flats. The Halligen and the other islands were normally to be seen from the dyke; but I now saw nothing but the yellow-grey waves beating continuosly against the dyke as though bellowing with rage, from time to time spraying dirty spume over my horse and me, and further out, a bleak half- light in which it was impossible to tell earth from sky, for even the half-moon, now at its height, was more often than not hidden behind swirling dark clouds. It was icy cold; my frozen hands could hardly hold the reins, and I had every sympathy with the crows and gulls which, constantly cawing and cackling, were being driven inland by the storm. Dusk had begun to fall, and I could no longer make out my horse's hooves with certainty; I had not met a living soul, and heard nothing but the shrieking of birds as they almost brushed me and my trusty mare with their long wings, and the wild raging of the wind and the water. I do not deny that from time to time I longed for a safe haven.

The storm was now into its third day, and a particularly well-loved relative of mine had already kept me back too long on his farm in one of the northern parishes. Today I could delay no longer; I had business to attend to in town, which even now was still a good few hours to the south, and so, despite all the persuasive arts of my cousin and his wife, despite the farm's fine home-grown Perinette and Grand Richard apples waiting to be tasted, I had set off that afternoon. "Just wait till you get to the sea," my cousin had called after me from the door of his house, "you'll be sure to turn back, we'll keep your room ready for you!"

And indeed, at the moment when a swathe of black cloud cast everything around me into pitch-darkness and howling squalls threatened to drive me and my mare off the dyke, the thought did cross my mind: "Don't be a fool! Turn round and go back to the warmth and comfort of your relatives' home." Then it occured to me that the way back was probably further than the way forward to my destination; and so I trotted on, pulling my cloak collar up around my ears.

Something now came towards me along the dyke; I heard nothing; but when the half-moon cast its thin light I thought I made out a dark figure, and soon, as it came nearer, I saw it, it was riding a horse, a long-legged, lean grey; a dark cloak fluttered about the figure's shoulders, and as it sped past, a pair of burning eyes looked at me from a pallid face. Who was he? What did he want? - It then occured to me, I had heard no hoofbeats, no horse's panting; and horse and rider had passed close by!..............

from: Theodor Storm: The Dykemaster (Der Schimmelreiter).
Translated with notes by Denis Jackson.
London:Angel Books 1996. ISBN 0 94616254 9

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