Joseph II and His Court

Author: Luise Mühlbach

Chapter LIII. What They Found at Wichern.

The carriage stopped, and before the valet had had time to open the door, the emperor leaped to the ground.

"Come," said he, merrily, "come and seek your fortunes. Thomas, you remain with the carriage. Drive under the shade of that tree and wait for our return. Before all things, I forbid you to tell anybody who we are. From this day forward, my name is Count Falkenstein. Mark me! I expect you to preserve my incognito."

"I will obey you, my lord count," said the valet, with a bow.

The emperor with his two companions walked toward the village. Nothing very hopeful was to be seen as they looked up the dirty little streets. The wretched mud cottages stood each one apart, their yards separated by scraggy willow-hedges, upon which ragged old garments were hanging in the sun to dry. Between the hedges were muddy pools, over which the ducks were wrangling for the bits of weed that floated on the surface of the foul waters. On their borders, in the very midst of the rubbish and kitchen offal that lay about in heaps, dirty, half-naked children, with straw-colored hair, tumbled over one another, or paddled in the water. In the farm-yards around the dung-heaps, the youngest children of the cottagers kept company with the sow and her grunting pigs. Before the slovenly entrances of the huts here and there sat dirty, unseemly old men and women, who stared at the three strangers as they surveyed the uninviting picture before them.

"I congratulate the emperor that he is not obliged to look upon this shocking scene," said Joseph. "I am glad that his people cannot cry out to him for help, since help for such squalor as this there is none on earth."

"They are not as wretched as you suppose," said Rosenberg. "These people are scarcely above the brute creation; and they know of nothing better than the existence which is so shocking to you. They were born and bred in squalor, and provided their pastures yield forage, their hens lay eggs and their cows give milk, they live and die contented."

"If so, they are an enviable set of mortals," replied Joseph, laughing, "and we, who require so much for our comfort, are poorer than they. But as there is no help for our poverty, let us think of dinner. Here are three streets; the village seems to have been divided for our especial accommodation. Each one shall take a street, and in one hour from now we meet at the carriage, each man with a dish of contribution. En avant! I take the street before me; you do the same. Look at your watches, and be punctual."

So saying, he waved his hand and hastened forward. The same solitude and misery met his view as he walked on; the same ducks, hens, sows, and tumbling children; with now and then the shrill treble of a scolding woman, or the melancholy lowing of a sick cow.

"I am curious now," thought the emperor, "to know how and where I am to find my dinner. But stay—here is a cottage less slovenly than its neighbors; I shall tempt my fortunes there."

He opened the wicker gate and entered the yard. The lazy sow that lay on the dunghill grunted, but took no further notice of the imperial intruder. He stopped before the low cottage door and knocked, but no one came. The place seemed silent and deserted; not the faintest hum of life was to be heard from within.

"I shall take the liberty of going in without awaiting an invitation," said the emperor, pushing open the door and entering the cottage. But he started at the unexpected sight that met his view as he looked around the room. It was a miserable place, cold and bare; not a chair or any other article of household furniture was to be seen; but in the centre of the room stood a small deal coffin, and in the coffin was the corpse of a child. Stiff and cold, beautiful and tranquil, lay the babe, a smile still lingering around its mouth, while its half-open eyes seemed fixed upon the white roses that were clasped in its little dimpled hands. The coffin lay in the midst of flowers, and within slept the dead child, transfigured and glorified.

The emperor advanced softly and bent over it. He looked with tender sympathy at the little marble image which yesterday was a poor, ragged peasant, to-day was a bright and winged angel. His thoughts flew back to the imperial palace, where his little motherless daughter was fading away from earth, and the father prayed for his only child. He took from the passive hands a rose, and softly as he came, he left the solitary cottage, wherein an angel was keeping watch.

He passed over to the neighboring yard. Here too, everything seemed to be at rest: but a savory odor saluted the nostrils of the noble adventurer which at least betokened the presence of beings who hungered and thirsted, and had some regard for the creature comforts of life.

"Ah!" said the emperor, drawing in the fragrant smell, "that savors of meat and greens," and he hurried through the house to the kitchen. Sure enough, there blazed a roaring fire, and from the chimney-crane hung the steaming pot whence issued the delightful aroma of budding dinner. On the hearth stood a young woman of cleanly appearance, who was stirring the contents of the pot with a great wooden spoon.

"Good-morning, madame," said the emperor, in a loud, cheerful voice. The woman started, gave a scream, and turned her glowing face to the door.

"What do you mean by coming into strange people’s houses and frightening them so?" cried she, angrily. "Nobody asked you in, I am sure."

"Pardon me, madame," said the emperor. "I was urgently invited."

"I should like to know who invited you, for nobody is here but myself, and I don’t want you."

"Yes, madame; but your steaming kettle, I do assure you, has given me a pressing invitation to dine here."

"Oh! you are witty, are you? Well, carry your wits elsewhere; they won’t serve you here. My kettle calls nobody but those who are to eat of my dinner."

"That is the very thing I want, madame. I want to eat of your dinner." As he spoke, the emperor kept advancing until he came close upon the kettle and its tempting contents; but the peasant-woman pushed him rudely back, and thrusting her broad person between himself and the coveted pot, she looked defiance at him, and broke out into a torrent of abuse.

The emperor laughed aloud. "I don’t wish to rob you," said he. "I will pay you handsomely if you will only let me have your dinner. What have you in that pot?"

"That is none of your business. With my bacon and beans you have no concern."

"Bacon and beans! Oh, my craving stomach! Here, take this piece of gold and give the some directly."

"Do you take me for a fool, to sell my dinner just as the men will be coming from the field!"

"By no means for a fool," said the emperor, soothingly; "but if you show the men that golden ducat they will wait patiently until you cook them another dinner. Your husband can buy himself a fine holiday suit with this."

"He has one, and don’t want two. Go your way; you shall not have a morsel of my dinner."

"Not if I give you two gold pieces? Come, do be accommodating, and give me the bacon and beans."

"I tell you yon shall not have them," screamed the termagant. "I have no use for your gold, but I want my dinner. So be off with you. You will get nothing from me if you beg all day long."

"Very well, madame; I bid you good-morning," said Joseph, laughing, but inwardly chagrined at his fiasco. "I must go on, however," thought he; and he entered the yard of the next house. Before the door sat a pale young woman, with a new-born infant in her arms. She looked up with a languid smile.

"I am hungry," said Joseph, after greeting her with uncovered head. "Have you any thing good in your kitchen?"

She shook her head sadly. "I am a poor, weak creature, sir, and cannot get a meal for my husband," replied she; "he will have to cook his own dinner when he comes home."

"And what will he cook to-day, for instance?"

"I suppose he will make an omelet; for the hens have been cackling a great deal this morning, and an omelet is made in a few minutes."

"Is it? So much the better, then; you can show me how to make one, and I will pay you well."

"Go in the hen-coop, sir, and see if you find any eggs. My husband will want three of them; the rest are at your service."

"Where is the hen-coop?" asked Joseph, much pleased.

"Go through the kitchen out into the yard, and you will see a little room with a wooden bolt; that is the hen-coop."

"I go," cried Joseph merrily. Presently great commotion was heard among the hens, and the emperor returned with a glowing face, his hair and coat well sprinkled with straw. He came forward with both hands full of eggs.

"Here are eight," said he. "Three for your husband, and five for me. Now tell me how I must cook them."

"You will have to go to the kitchen, sir. There you will find a flitch of bacon. Cut off some slices, put them in a pan you will see there, and set it on the fire. My neighbor has just now made some for poor John. Then look on the dresser and take some milk and a little flour. Make a batter of them with the eggs, pour it upon your bacon, and when the eggs are done, the omelet is made. It is the easiest thing in the world."

"My dear good woman, it will be a desperately hard task for me," said the emperor with a sigh. "I’m afraid I shall make a very poor omelet. Won’t you come into the kitchen and make it for me? Do, I will pay you well."

"Dear gentleman," said the young woman, blushing "do you think I am so idle as to sit here, if I could get up and help you? I was brought to bed yesterday of this baby; and I am such a poor, sickly thing that I shall not be able to get up before two days. As the day was bright, dear John brought me and the baby out here, because it was more cheerful on the door-sill than within. I am a weak, useless creature, sir."

"Weak! useless!" cried the emperor, astounded; "and you expect to be up in three days after your confinement? Poor little thing! Have you no physician and no medicine?"

"The Lord is my physician, sir," said the simple creature, "and my medicine is the fresh air. But let me think of your omelet. If you cannot make it yourself, just step to the cottage on the left, and call my neighbor. She is very good to me, and she will make your omelet for you with pleasure."

"A thousand thanks," said the emperor, hastening to follow the directions. He, returned in a few moments with a good-humored, healthy young woman, who went cheerfully to work, and the omelet was soon made.

One hour after he had parted from his friends, the emperor was seen coming along the street with a platter in his hand and a little bucket on his arm. He walked carefully, his eyes fixed upon his precious dish, all anxiety lest it should fall from his hands.

Thomas was thunderstruck. An emperor carrying an earthen platter in his hand! He darted forward to receive it, but Joseph motioned him away.

"Don’t touch me, Thomas," said he, "or I shall let it fall. I intend to place it with my own hands. Go, now, and set the table. Pile up some of those flat stones, and bring the carriage cushions. We will dine under that wide-spreading oak. Make haste, I am very hungry."

Off went Thomas, obedient, though bewildered; and he had soon improvised a, table, over which he laid a shining damask cloth. Luckily, the emperor’s camp-chest had not been put in the baggage-wagon, or his majesty would have had to eat with his fingers. But the golden service was soon forthcoming, with goblets of sparkling crystal, and three bottles of fine old Hungarian wine.

"Now," said Joseph triumphantly, "let me place my dishes." With these words he put on his platter and basket, with great ceremony and undisguised satisfaction.

A curious medley of wealth and poverty were these golden plates and forks, with the coarse red platter, that contained the hard-earned omelet. But the omelet was smoking and savory, and the strawberries were splendid.

While the emperor was enjoying the result of his foraging expedition, Rosenberg and Coronini were seen approaching, each with his earthen platter in his hand.

"The hour is up and we are here," said Coronini. "I have the honor of laying my dish at your m—feet, count."

"Potatoes! beautiful roasted potatoes!" cried Joseph. "Why, count, you have brought us a treat."

"I rejoice to hear it, my lord count; for I was threatened with a broomstick when I tore it from the hands of the woman, who vowed I should not have a single potato. I dashed two ducats at her feet and made off with all speed; for the hour was almost up, and I had exhausted all my manners in the ten houses, which I had visited in vain, before my successful raid upon hers."

"And will not my lord count cast an eye upon my dish?" asked Rosenberg.

"He has obtained that for which I sued in vain!" cried Joseph. "He has actually brought bacon and beans."

"But I did not sue; I stormed and threatened. Neither did I waste my gold to obtain my end. I threw the woman a silver thaler and plenty of abuse in the bargain."

"Let us be seated!" said the emperor, "and pray admire my omelet and my strawberries. Now, Coronini, the strawberries are tempting, but before you taste them, I must tell you that they are tainted with treason: treason toward my own sacred person. Reflect well before you decide to eat them. What I am going to relate is as terrible as it is true. While my omelet was cooking, I strolled out into the road to see if there was any thing else in Wichern besides poultry, pigs, and dirty children. Coming toward me I perceived a pretty little barefoot boy, with a basket full of red, luscious strawberries. I asked where he was going. He said to the neighboring village to sell his strawberries to the farmer’s wife, who had ordered them. I offered to buy them, but my gold could not tempt the child—he refused peremptorily to sell them to me at any price. I argued, pleaded, threatened; all to no purpose. At length, seeing there was no other alternative, I snatched his strawberries away, threw him a ducat, and walked off with the prize. He picked up the gold, but as he did so, he saluted my imperial ears with an epithet—such an epithet! Oh, you will shudder when you hear what language the little rascal used to his sovereign! You never will be able to bear it, Coronini: you, whose loyalty is offended every time you address me as Count Falkenstein. I only wonder that the sun did not hide its head, and the earth tremble at the sacrilege! What do you suppose he called me?—An ass! He did, I assure you. That little bare-legged boy called his emperor an ass! Now, Coronini, do you think you can taste of the strawberries that were gathered by those treacherous little hands?"

"If my lord count allows it, I will venture to eat," replied Coronini, "for I really think there was no treason committed."

"Why! not when he called me an—"

"Pray do not say it again," entreated Coronini, raising his hands deprecatingly; "it cuts me to the heart. But Count Falkenstein had already proclaimed that no majesty was by, and when no majesty, was there, no majesty could be insulted."

"Oh, you sophist! Did you not say that I wore my title upon my brow? Did you not tell me that I could not hide my majesty from the sons of men? But I forgive you, and the boy also. Let us drink his health while we enjoy his strawberries. Fill your glasses to the brim, and having done honor to those who furnished our repast, allow me to propose—ourselves: To the health of those who are about to eat a dinner which they have earned by the sweat of their brow."

So saying, the emperor touched the glasses of his friends.

"Now, postilion," cried he, before they drank, "blow us a blast on your horn—a right merry blast!"

The postilion put the horn to his lips, and while he blew the glasses clinked gayly; and the friends laughed, jested, and ate their dinner with a relish they had seldom known before. [Footnote: Hubner, "Life of Joseph II.," vol. i., page 40.]


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Chicago: Luise Mühlbach, "Chapter LIII. What They Found at Wichern.," Joseph II and His Court, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. Coleman, Chapman, Mrs., 1813-1891 in Joseph II and His Court (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed March 25, 2023,

MLA: Mühlbach, Luise. "Chapter LIII. What They Found at Wichern." Joseph II and His Court, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by Coleman, Chapman, Mrs., 1813-1891, in Joseph II and His Court, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 25 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Mühlbach, L, 'Chapter LIII. What They Found at Wichern.' in Joseph II and His Court, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, Joseph II and His Court, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 March 2023, from