I: Twenty-One

Tragedy in Toluca

I could not put the bullfights down, so, wanting to write prose, I wrote instead an article about Toluca, and another about the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a little play for children called, The Gold Piece. I sent them to the Brownie’s Book, a magazine for Negro children, just begun in New York by Dr. DuBois and the Crisis staff. These pieces of mine were accepted, and encouraging letters came back from Jessie Fauset, who was managing editor there. So I sent her my poem written on the train, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” And in June, 1921, it appeared in the Crisis, the first of my poems to be published outside Central High School.

My father reacted to my published work with two questions: “How long did it take you to write that?” And next: “Did they pay you anything?”

Neither the Crisis nor the Brownie’s Book paid anything, but I was delighted to be published. For the next few years my poems appeared often (and solely) in the Crisis. And to that magazine, certainly, I owe my literary beginnings—insofar as publication is concerned.

Finally my father gave in and said, yes, he would send me to Columbia. So I wrote for registration and dormitory space. I was admitted, and planned to leave for New York late in the summer. But that spring the block which our house occupied, facing the little park, was the scene of several weird and depressing happenings. I began to wish I had gone away sooner.

It began with my seeing an Indian at our corner get both his legs cut off by the bouncing little street car (on a Ford chassis) that wound from the center of the town to the station. Shortly after that, one early morning, I opened the big doors in the wall of the corral to let my father through, bound for the ranch. His horse dashed out, but suddenly balked for no reason in the middle of the road and threw him head-over-heels in the dust. My father got up, rubbed his head, grabbed the horse, and went on to the ranch. But Maximiliano declared the horse had seen the poor Indian’s ghost walking through our park in the sunrise, with no legs.

A week or two later, one Sunday morning, leaving the house early to catch the seven o’clock train for Mexico City, I noticed a small crowd of Indians in their serapes, standing around the shallow basin of the fountain in the center of the park. As I passed, I looked down and there in scarcely three feet of water, lay the body of a young woman, curled about the base of the fountain. She was nicely dressed, and obviously of a decent family. The police found a suicide note. She was one of the good girls whose grilled rejas had not protected her from the step that in Mexico brings ruin and disgrace. But what will power it must have taken—to drown one’s self in a shallow fountain of water hardly as deep as your knees!

In Mexico City, I told the three kind maiden ladies of the strange happenings on our plaza in Toluca, and they looked distressed and worried. They said they would pray that nothing happened to my father or me. And they begged me to go to mass with them. Perhaps their prayers worked. For, although tragedy soon descended in a most unexpected manner upon our house itself, neither my father nor I was home when that strange explosion of passion and of violence took place.

Our German housekeeper, Frau Schultz, had an old friend from Berlin in Mexico City, whose husband was not well and whose income was therefore reduced. This friend had several children, the oldest, a daughter of seventeen or eighteen in need of work.

That winter in Toluca, the wife of the German brewery-master died, and so he began looking about for a housekeeper. The brewery-master was sixty-five years old, and merely wanted someone to manage his Mexican servants and see that he got something to eat, German-style, once in a while. Frau Schultz immediately thought of her friend’s daughter for the job. Although a young girl, she was nevertheless sober and industrious in her habits, and a very good cook, to boot.

She sent for the girl. Her name was Gerta Kraus. She was a very plain girl, awkward, shy and silent, with stringy ashen hair and a long face. She spoke no Spanish beyond Buenos Dias, so that was all we ever said to each other as long as I knew her. The old German gave her the job as his housekeeper. And as the winter went on, Frau Schultz reported that the girl was doing very well, that she kept the brewery-master’s home spotless, and sent her wages to her parents in Mexico City.

Perhaps twice a week, Gerta would come down to our house and spend a few hours in the afternoon with Frau Schultz. Occasionally, I would come home from my various English classes and find them chattering away in German at a great rate, over a big pot of coffee and a platter of cakes. But I seldom joined them. My pupils’ parents gave me chocolate, or sweetmeats, or something to eat or drink almost every time I taught a class, so I was seldom hungry until dinner time.

In the spring, Frau Kraus came up from Mexico City to spend a week with Frau Schultz and see her daughter, whom she hadn’t seen all winter. That week the outdoor brick oven in our corral was always full of long loaves of bread and yellow cakes. All the German friends of Frau Schultz in Toluca came to call on Frau Kraus from Mexico City—that is all the Germans in their circle—for the wealthier Germans, like the brewery-master, did not move in such poor society.

My father had gone to the ranch, so the women had the house to themselves. Because I found Frau Schultz very kind and amiable, I was glad she was having a holiday week with her friends. Every day, Gerta came down to our house to be with her mother, and things were very lively and the patio was filled with feminine voices speaking German. Most of the time, I kept out of the way, since we couldn’t understand one another, the Germans and I.

Then Friday came. The week was almost over and Frau Kraus would return to Mexico City on Sunday. But on Friday the terrible thing happened. Fortunately, there were no guests in the house that afternoon. Only Frau Schultz and her little girl, Lotte, Frau Kraus and her daughter, Gerta. It was a chilly, dismal afternoon, so they were all seated at the table in the dining room just off the warm kitchen. The coffee was hot, and the apple-cakes almost like the cakes at home in Germany, where the ovens were not built of adobe brick in dusty corrals. They were having a good time, the two women talking of days before the war in their suburb of Berlin, and of their children, and how ten-year-old Lotte was learning Spanish and becoming Catholic already in that Catholic school, and of how well Gerta had done with her job under the tall, cranky old brewery-master.

Just then someone knocked commandingly at the street entrance. Ten-year-old Lotte went down the corridor and across the patio to answer the door. There stood the brewery-master, tall with iron-white hair and a big white mustache. He did not say a word to Lotte. He came in and strode slowly along the corridor that skirted the patio, looking into each room as he passed. He came to the dining room, which was at the end of the corridor. Hearing voices, he pushed open the door and walked in.

No one had time to say a word, to rise to greet him, or to offer him a chair. For the brewery-master took a pistol from his pocket and, without warning, began to fire on the women. First he fired on Gerta point-blank, sending a bullet through her head, another through her jaw, another through her shoulder, before she slumped unconscious to the floor beneath the table. In panic, the two women tried to run, but the old man, blocking the door, fired again, striking Frau Schultz in the right arm and breaking it. Then he went all through the patio looking for me, looking, looking, out into the corral and through the stables.

Lotte, wild-eyed, reached the street and called the neighbors. Frau Kraus lay in a dead faint in the kitchen. Frau Schultz crouched, stunned, in a corner against the wall, afraid to move. A crowd of Indians assembled, but were wary of entering the house.

Finally the old German walked past the men on the sidewalk, with his pistol still in hand, and no one stopped him. He went directly to the police station and gave himself up. He had two bullets left in his gun, and he told the police he had intended them for me. He said he thought Gerta had been coming to our house to be with me. He said he was in love with Gerta and he wanted to kill her and to kill me.

When I got home a half-hour after the shooting, the ambulance had just taken every one to the hospital. The police would not let me in until they had completed their inspection. When I finally did get into the house, I found the dining room floor a pool of blood, a chair splintered by a bullet, and the tiles of the corridor spotted with red.

Since my father was at the ranch, I went in search of a German friend of his, a buyer of mines, who saw to it that proper hospitalization was provided for the women. Then we went to visit the jail. The old brewery-master sat in his cell, not saying a word, except that he was glad he had killed the girl. He was glad, he mumbled, glad!

But strangely enough, Gerta did not die! She was unconscious for six weeks, and remained in the hospital almost a year—but she didn’t die. She finally got well again, with the marks of three bullets on her face and body. The court gave the old man twenty years in prison.

Had I arrived at home that afternoon a half-hour earlier, I probably would not be here today.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.