A sennentuntschi is a type of living doll or scarecrow found in Alpine folklore. In the usual story, a trio of herdsmen pasturing their cattle in the mountains fashion the simulacrum of a woman out of straw to keep them company. They proceed to treat her as a common plaything, abusing, raping, and eventually abandoning her to the elements (the severity of the mistreatment varies widely in the many different versions of this story, but all versions feature the abandonment of the doll by its creators). The doll then comes to life and takes revenge. In some versions, the doll is male.
I shall owe everything to the perspicacity of future generations if any man among them happening upon this testament – assuming it survives – shall read what I have written and comprehend its true meaning. It concerns the last days and most mysterious death of my dear friend, Dietrich Speer. Bear with me, Reader: I will endeavour to be concise.
Herr Speer entered our town on the verge of death, or so he appeared. One bright spring afternoon in the year 16—, his son and a pair of servants lugged him out of his caleche into the townhouse he had acquired on the riverbank and we saw nothing more of him for a span of several months. I had the privilege of meeting his son in society before he too became reclusive. He was a tall, stately gentlemen bearing the name Albrecht Speer. His reserve was ironclad from the start: we could discover very little about him through conversation. He must have had his lodgings in town, for example, but even I never learned where he slept, save it was not in his father’s house. After much prompting, he finally told me that the old man was gravely ill and that they were originally from Bamberg. I was not surprised; the young man’s fine clothes declared a cosmopolitan upbringing and certain habits of his speech suggested an education in the French universities. Why, I inquired, had he and his father come to our humble – though well-fortified – settlement, when Bamberg itself was not, at least for the moment, imperilled? He told me they had quitted the city on the urging of his father’s physician, who commanded the old man to take the countryside air.
As I have said, this young man, Albrecht, soon ceased to come among us, and we did not inquire much after him. There were some who continued to mark the activities of the father’s servants, who were often seen buying food in the markets, but most of us had nearly forgotten the newcomers when, two months after the appearance of the carriage, a sleek, rosy old man emerged unexpectedly from the townhouse on the riverbank and introduced himself to our prominent families as Herr Dietrich Speer. He proceeded to make an excellent impression on society. A retired judge, he showed himself to be an inexhaustible well of learning; his command of law was equalled only, perhaps, by his redoubtable knowledge of natural philosophy. At the commencement of our friendship, he presented me with several handsome volumes of Euclid and Kepler, which formed the cornerstone of my now-extensive library of geometrical and astronomical works.
I felt myself drawn to his good humour and his unusual candour, which was the exact opposite of his son’s reticence. The judge himself was the son of a wool merchant and never affected to be of noble stock. I have many happy recollections of our time together and I would be content to linger in these pleasant pastures. I enjoyed numerous gay afternoons in his study and, in these circumstances, heard enough of his conversation to produce a volume of table talk which, if God permits, I shall accomplish before I am too old. For he was so voluble and so free with his learning that it would be a shame to deprive our descendants of the moral maxims he constantly articulated (and always as easily as a bird sings its ordained song). Alas, this is not the place to treat of the delightful and the edifying. May God steady my hand and grant me the strength to unfold what follows in this melancholy history!
It began with the book he was writing. We had known each other for about a year when I became aware of it. At that time, the Swede had fallen upon Bamberg like a ravening lion. Albrecht, mindful of his duty to faith and fatherland, enrolled in the army of the exiled Prince-Bishop and Herr Speer hosted a few families at his home one night in honour of the boy’s departure. At the close of that gathering, when I was prepared to depart myself and dawn manifested itself as a lifeless white light in the east, Herr Speer remarked that he hoped to see me soon. He would be lonely in his house, he said, without Albrecht’s regular visits. I promised to be there as often as I could. Then, as if blurting out a secret, my friend suddenly added, “I still have my book to finish,” in a strange, hasty mutter.
It was a tone of voice I had never heard him use before. “You never mentioned that you were writing a book,” said I. “Indeed,” he responded, “I seldom speak of it. Any discussion of the matter would demand a like-minded interlocutor and they are in regrettably short supply nowadays. But I have taken your measure, my friend, and I think that with you, it would be alright.”
Naturally, my curiosity was piqued by these guarded words. I half-expected to learn he had composed a treatise on alchemy or demonology, but he said nothing more that night. I did not happen to learn more about his book in our next several meetings; in truth, he gave me no opportunity to ask. Perhaps he regretted a premature disclosure; perhaps he had reconsidered his high opinion of me. But it must be acknowledged that he was most preoccupied by the war at that time and desperate for any scrap of news about his son. I heard of these and other concerns often and learned nothing that was of interest to me for many weeks. But one day, when we were sitting in his parlour after lunch, he announced to me that his book was finished.
We had been silent for a long stretch. We sat in place, listening to the rain rolling in the eaves and smoking a matching pair of Turkish pipes he had purchased before the war. They were like churchwardens, but far longer: their reed-like stems, equipped with amber mouthpieces, were of oak inlaid with gleaming ivory and the plum-sized bowls, which fit comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, were made of brass and fumed like censers, filling the room with wreaths of blue fog. I fancied that in the haze we might have passed for a couple of wise old Mohammedans in Cordoba reflecting on some now-forgotten problem of metaphysics. But I was not so very old then, and neither of us, perhaps, was very wise.
I inquired again about the subject of his book and he deigned at last to enlighten me. “It takes the form of a treatise,” he said, “on the recent witch trials in this land and the superstitions animating them. It is also a personal testament: mine. I sat as judge in one of those courts.”
I asked him if what I heard about them was true. He confirmed it. “There is no doubt,” he said sadly, “that emissaries of the evil one walk among us. Nor is it less certain that those terrible pyres lately constructed in Germany have failed to rid mankind of a single one of them.” He was scathing on the matter of the interrogations. “Nothing, apart from your average country doctor,” he observed, “enjoys as much faith among the men of this world as torture while being so useless, so utterly ineffectual! If only our princes held religion in such high honour! We might have never heard the name ‘Martin Luther’.”
“I have repented for what I have done,” he went on pensively, after a silence. “I have prayed; I have confessed; now I crave restitution. This book is my implement. Willingly would I append my own name to it, were I not certain of being forced to recant. I will keep my identity a secret. The torments of the dungeon, though they never unlocked the truth, never fail to obtain for the court whatever falsehoods it demands.”
His book was released in July of that year. Wherever war did not hold sway in the Empire, it commanded the attention of literate men. There was a slow reaction, one milder than we expected. Here and there it was proscribed. Naturally, it incensed a few zealous commentators. My friend was perfectly unperturbed by their hysterics; he claimed he never read their pamphlets, but collected them as fuel for his fireplace in the coming winter. It was not long before a second wave of pamphlets arose, now in support of his book. In short, everything was turning out better than expected.
Near the end of the summer, it began to be whispered in our town that he was the author of the famous volume. Herr Speer fretted over this for a while, but as nothing came of it after a month, he allowed himself to relax. But then, an almost mortal blow struck him in September when our town learned of the deaths of several of our young men. Albrecht was among them.
The boy’s unhappy father at once resumed his initial posture of self-imposed isolation. Even I hardly saw him. When I did, I saw that there was nothing I could do to ease his misery. It was compounded, I understood, by the knowledge that he had plunged many a family into the same condition.
“This is Heaven’s judgment,” he told me. “And it is exceeding bitter to me. Ah, but iustus quidem tu es, Domine!” He once said that it was as if a volcano had erupted before him and buried the world in a tide of ash, robbing it of life and colour. “Vanitas vanitatum. The wisdom of Solomon touches me at last in mine age,” he said, tears shining in the corners of his eyes. “The second youth of my life is departed, friend; my streams are frozen over, my cup is emptied, and my fields shall grow no more. This house, these books, and all my worldly possessions are to me as trinkets scavenged from the ruins of a city sacked and burned.”
The subsequent events I have to relate are indeed so strange and so unnerving that I would certainly wonder whether they occurred at all or whether they were the fruit of my own fantasy were it not that many recall them as sharply as I do and may confirm me in my account. These happenings are, without doubt, the handiwork of sinister forces in our world – if not the powers of the air, then a cabal of wicked men possessed of far-reaching powers and furnished with a sort of malice that, in itself, seems diabolical.
Scarcely a year after we had received the news, when our wealthiest citizens had fled and refugees began to dwell in tents outside the town walls, when those walls began to bristle with guards – when, in short, the warfront erupted into our lives – a young man with a bandaged face appeared at the gate. He was admitted under guard, and with that company in tow he went directly to my friend, in whose presence he, to general astonishment, introduced himself as the lost Albrecht Speer.
In those days, the roads were haunted by bandits and the forest by madmen. Wild-eyed, rag-clad former soldiers wandered the land, introducing themselves to you as lost heroes of the war, illegitimate sons of foreign commanders and kings, or even Jupiter himself. I know not what proofs this one used to turn the old man’s mind. I can make only a very rough appraisal of the judge’s condition at this point: as I have said, upon hearing of Albrecht’s loss, he shut himself inside his house, suffering by all appearances from a relapse of his old illness. The only signs of life in the months that followed were, as before, his servants sallying forth to buy food, yet I have it on their good authority that he seldom ate. On the uncommon occasions I did manage to see him, he appeared in the same clothes, looking dishevelled and underfed, like a prisoner in the local jail, but full of nervous energy that would not, it seemed, permit him to rest, even though he was unable to work or read, and nothing occupied his days.
With the seeming restoration of his son, however, Herr Speer rebounded miraculously. His usual role in the public life in our town resumed. He left his house and I was often a guest there when he began to host gatherings of friends and neighbours again. On these occasions, he often pressured me to converse with the supposed Albrecht. I did so with curiosity at first, and later with extreme reluctance, since it was immediately obvious to me that the youth was an impostor. I was not alone, I suspect, in thinking so, but no one would voice these suspicions aloud.
I must not fail to mention a series of strange incidents that preceded pseudo-Albrecht’s arrival. A mirror in the judge’s house, without falling from its perch, was shattered while the servants were away and Herr Speer was in the unusual position of trying to convince them that he had nothing to do with it. A few days after that, a pair of dead roosters appeared in the alley behind his house. I myself glimpsed a vagabond black cat prowling that street…
After a month of the young man’s continuous presence, the judge announced that it was time to remove pseudo-Albrecht’s bandages. The unveiling was done with great ceremony. I was formally invited, along with a few mutual friends. Many declined, but a number were in attendance, including my cousin, Princess Margarethe, who had graciously suspended her usual commitments for the day. The bandages were snipped with little silver scissors and slowly peeled away from the young man’s face. He uttered no complaint and hardly flinched at their rasping divorce from what must have been, at that point, sensitive new skin. It was tight, rosy, and, in places, shiny with the sheen of a blister. His features were distorted by scars.
Nevertheless, the basic structure was obvious to the eye and he could easily have been Albrecht’s twin. I cannot say whether I could have told them apart in any point (were it not for the injuries, of course). And yet, as I beheld him, I was more positive than ever that he was not the man he purported to be.
On the other hand, if the old man still harboured suspicions, he surely cast them to the winds then and there. The other guests, whatever they believed, went along with it, just as they had up to that point. I sequestered myself with Margarete. She was uncertain, less familiar with the family than I, and she would not say for sure that the bandaged man was not Albrecht.
“Herr Speer thinks he is,” she cautioned, “and you may find it a challenge to dissuade him.”
Then, as always, she showered me with excellent advice, reminding me of the power of the Almighty to set everything right and repair all misfortunes, and recommending prudence, gentleness, and patience in dealing with my friend. I did not share her delicacy, however; I could contain myself no longer. When the opportunity for a private dialogue arose, I took the judge aside and told him what I thought. He heard me with confusion first, then anger, but he didn’t eject me from his house as I feared he would. His passions were restrained that day by his overall ebullience. But he was not merciful for long; the offense was remembered, and I learned the next day, upon encountering a servant of his in the marketplace, that I was no longer welcome at the house.
Shaken, I went that night to Herr Granz, who also attended the gathering, and I asked his opinion. He denied seeing any difference between the Albrecht we had known and the bandaged man. I was, at first, almost willing to concede the issue, but we fell to disputing about it anyway. And I found that, the more Herr Granz insisted on the opposite, the more confirmed I felt in my opinion of the pseudo-Albrecht. I cannot say [manuscript illegible] But I know – I know – it was not him.
Over time, I sank somewhat under the burden of universal incredulity. I even sought to banish the affair from my mind, but the thought of my elderly friend in the grip of a heartless impostor tormented my conscience. Barred from access to either of them, I resolved at last to write to the real Albrecht’s superiors and his fellow officers in the hope of obtaining proof, by testimony at least, of his death.
I knew better than to expect a timely response. It was said that the Imperial cause had suffered greatly in Westphalia. The news from the battlefield was always gloomy, even, it seemed, when our forces had the advantage. What we heard left us unhappily certain that the end was nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, I was fearful of fires breaking out closer to home. It is a matter of public record that there has always been a certain sympathy in our region for Lutherism. I speak of no one in particular that I knew; yet I so dreaded a revival of this sentiment among my neighbours, that my anxiety for my friend did, for a while, almost assume the character of a welcome distraction.
I set about questioning those acquaintances of mine who still visited the house about what took place inside and I often directed my steps there when taking the air at noonday. I heard that the father was in a state of perpetual agitation, while the alleged son was sullen and distant. The judge left his house less and less frequently, but continued to receive visitors.
While I awaited the reply to my letter, I pleaded with my cousin to undertake a suit on my behalf with the judge. She complied reluctantly, manifesting some consternation at finding herself in the middle of our dispute. The judge readily agreed to see me. I was so moved by the warmth of his affection that I felt ashamed at being unable to accomplish whatever would have made him happiest.
I delivered my apology and he forgave me; then, to celebrate our reconciliation, he opened his cellaret and we shared a fine liqueur. We talked of this and that for an hour. The mysterious incidents I mentioned in connection with the arrival of pseudo-Albrecht were weighing on his mind. Not only had the mirror in his house been shattered – then afterwards, I learned, a windowpane – but he had often heard, in the middle of the night, the sounds of people whispering under the window of his study. That very morning, they had discovered a smear of red paint on the exterior wall. He could not help thinking, and with some confusion at what might be an inversion of sorts, of the doors marked with lambs’ blood in Egypt.
I feigned interest in these things that seemed, at the time, like trifles. After our last exchange, I resolved not to confront him about pseudo-Albrecht without firm proof of the impostor’s treachery. It was hard not to press the issue, very hard indeed. I felt I sinned unpardonably against my honour in speaking calmly with him, in maintaining the illusion (at least by failing to challenge it), as if a change of heart had made me content to let the issue lie, when in truth I fully intended to pick it up again later and force it to its conclusion. Alas, all my plans were fated to go awry. The eagerly awaited letter came three days after my reconciliation with the judge, and by then it was too late.
I was out for a meeting with a local merchant (my purpose, I confess, was to secure a small loan) when a messenger boy knocked on the door of the shop with an envelope in hand. I brought it before me and tucked it away in my coat with a feeling of uncontrollable excitement, waiting impatiently for my audience to end. When at last I quitted the room, I opened the letter in the street and read it feverishly. The paper had suffered significant water damage en route, and its hand was cramped and small to begin with, but I understood enough of it to know that everything was precisely as I had guessed. The commanding officer reported that Albrecht had been killed on the 12th of September, 16—. The body, he admitted, had not been recovered, but certainly it had been blown to pieces by the cannonade. To bolster his statement, several witnesses, Albrecht’s fellow officers, had contributed their signatures, filling in the bottom of the letter.
I saddled my horse and rode at top speed for the judge’s house. I could have walked, but I had no patience – I burned to expose the impostor. I refused to allow this charade to continue a second longer than necessary.
It was midday; the servants were abroad. The door, strangely, was unbolted. That by itself unnerved me and my feelings of unease grew stronger when I entered the house. All was still. No sound or movement answered my calls. It was inconceivable, I knew, that the door should have been left unlocked with no one at home. I was certain to find the judge somewhere. The main floor being devoid of life, I crept nervously up the stairs, unsheathing my sword and hoping that, in the case of bandits or worse, I still remembered how to use it.
The main bedrooms were clear as well, and I approached the study with a strange and awful feeling of predestination. Thus, when I entered the room, I was almost unsurprised to find my friend on the floor beside his desk, his eyes half-open and a ring of black bruises around his throat. It was the object lying beside him that wrung a great cry of fear from me and caused me to violently recoil, stumbling against the doorframe. Still dressed in the white officer’s uniform worn by pseudo-Albrecht was a scarecrow or something like it, a being fashioned of twigs and straw in the shape of a man. Its position suggested – grotesquely, comically – that it had just finished strangling my friend.
I went a little mad on the spot. Perhaps I remain so. I flew downstairs and stood by the door, gibbering and howling mindlessly for aid, until the return of the servants and the assembly of onlookers in the courtyard permitted me to regain my equilibrium. One of the servants went inside and emerged in a condition similar to mine. The other, upon learning what lay inside, refused to enter the house unescorted. Presently, this one sent for the magistrate and I was detained. But before this was done, I convinced the servants to escort me around the house, suspicious as they were of me, so that I could view the wall under the window of the study. To their astonishment – but not mine – the red mark described to me by Herr Speer had vanished. We waited mutely by the gate for the militiamen to arrive.
There would be a fruitless manhunt for pseudo-Albrecht and a great deal of puzzling over the scarecrow, but no one ever managed to explain what happened. In the light of memory, I can see that everything about these bizarre events that I witnessed (and, indeed, what followed as well) passed a little too perfectly, if you apprehend my meaning. Someone was taken — tortured — confessed; that is to say, a culprit was found. Perhaps there is nothing more to add.
I have written enough. The rest is of no importance.