About the time their third son, Paul, is born, the Meyerhofers lose their country estate, Helenenthal, through forced sale. Meyerhofer tries to keep his wife, Elsbeth, in ignorance of what is going on, but she is so uneasy that at last he tells her that a family named Douglas bought his property.
Meyerhofer is a violent man, given to grandiose schemes to gain wealth and endowed with a martyr complex. It suits him to move his family to a humble farm, within sight of Helenenthal, where they will be constantly reminded of their lost prosperity. Elsbeth, a docile woman, shudders at the prospect.
Mrs. Douglas, a kindhearted woman, comes to see the mother and her baby. She assures Elsbeth that she can stay on at Helenenthal as long as the family wishes. The two women become good friends. Mrs. Douglas acts as godmother for Paul, and Mrs. Meyerhofer is godmother for Elsbeth, a daughter born to the Douglases a short time later. In spite of their friendship, however, Meyerhofer takes offense at a fancied slight and moves his family in bleak November to a farm on the moor.
In those poor surroundings, Paul has a secluded childhood. His mother, sensing his retiring disposition, is kind to him, but his father is brutal. He continually ridicules his son by comparing him unfavorably with his two lively older brothers. He often beats Paul, and after the beatings his mother comforts him. She often tells him stories; the one he remembers best is a frightening tale about Dame Care, a gray woman who put great burdens on poor people. Some years after they move, Elsbeth has twin daughters, Katie and Greta.
About the time Paul is learning to whistle, bad times come to the farm. The mortgage is due, and there is no money to pay it. Day after day, Meyerhofer drives into town and comes back very late, usually drunk. Despite her fear of her husband, Elsbeth determines to seek help. She takes Paul with her to Helenenthal on a memorable visit. There she explains her husband’s dislike for the Douglas family and asks for their help. The amiable Mr. Douglas gives her the money to pay the mortgage. Paul plays with Elsbeth Douglas while the grown-ups visit.
Paul does not succeed easily at school. He has to study a long time to get his work done, and he has to memorize all the answers to problems. His handwriting, however, is very good. The Erdmann brothers, wild-eyed and saucy, make his life miserable for years. They often beat him, steal his lunch, and throw his clothes into the river.
The Meyerhofer property is surrounded by a peat bog. Always too busy to pay attention to his farm, Meyerhofer buys a used steam engine to harvest peat. He gives half his harvest as down payment to Levy, a sharp trader, and hires an engineer whom Levy recommends. The old engine, however, will never run, and Meyerhofer learns that the supposed engineer is only a tramp hired by Levy for a few days’ imposture. That winter, when Levy comes to collect the other half of the harvest, the duped Meyerhofer drives him off with a whip. Levy, a shrewd man of business, goes...
(The entire section is 1260 words.)