To the suburban shack of the Wolff family, which Julius and Frau Wolff are paying off on the installment plan, their older daughter Leontine returns with complaints that her employers, the Krügers, sent her out for wood late at night. Leontine was hired out to the rich family in the neighborhood to earn enough money to start a stage career, because Frau Wolff thinks that her appearance will assure her success. Although Julius wants to send the girl back to the Krügers immediately, Frau Wolff seizes the opportunity to devise a plan to steal the wood that her rebellious daughter refuses to carry. If the older daughter has delusions of grandeur, the younger one, Udelheid, does not.
Julius manufactures boats and runs the local ferry as a kind of front for his real profession, the illegal snaring of game. He returns with his shipwright’s tools and oars, and Frau Wolff completes butchering a stag in preparation of the arrival of a boatman, Wulkow, who deals in plundered goods. The family, which thrives by trickery, wit, and chance, just then has a supply of firewood and a stag ready for market.
Wulkow seems reluctant to pay more than thirteen shillings for the meat, but Frau Wolff, the real ringleader in the family dealings, bargains him up to seventeen. The important sale, however, is that Wulkow declares himself willing to pay sixty or seventy crowns for a good fur coat to relieve his rheumatism during the cold days on the barge. Frau Krüger bought just such a coat for her husband’s Christmas present. Their bargaining is interrupted by the appearance of Motes and his wife, who obtain eggs and bread from Frau Wolff in return for an uneasy truce over several snares they found. Motes, who lost an eye in a hunting accident and thereupon his job as a ranger, sometimes remedies his misfortunes by informing on poachers in the neighborhood.
After this encounter, Frau Wolff fortifies her husband with whiskey for the midnight excursion to load wood. Their friend, the policeman who on his nightly rounds wheedles drinks, innocently helps the Wolffs prepare for the task ahead. He is several days late in delivering a message that Frau Wolff is to appear at Justice von Wehrhahn’s house on the following morning.
In the justice’s court the next day, Krüger lodges a complaint that his wood was stolen, but the justice is not at all interested in the theft. He hears that Krüger’s friend and boarder, Doctor Fleischer, a notorious liberal democrat and freethinker, said slanderous things about a certain official newly arrived in town, and von Wehrhahn is certain that he is the official to whom Fleischer referred. He is therefore preoccupied with a plan to rig circumstantial evidence to press charges against Doctor Fleischer. When Krüger insists that his hired girl be forced to return, Frau Wolff is brought in, dripping from her work at the von Wehrhahn tubs, to settle the dispute. She announces that she refuses to send her daughter back to a house where she is forced to carry wood in the middle of the night. Krüger, who is partially deaf, becomes angry and accuses the justice of shouting and the court of incompetency. As Frau Wolff returns with injured pride to her washing and Krüger storms out, von Wehrhahn is left with Motes, who gives him reassurance.
Several days later, a beaver coat is delivered to Wulkow for ninety-nine crowns (when new, the coat cost about one hundred crowns). Frau Wolff counts her money carefully, claiming that the boatman cheated her of one crown. In spite of Julius’s wish to pay the final installment on their house, his wife insists on burying the money until things blow over. Udelheid, the younger daughter, busily building a fire of stolen wood, is sent to study confirmation verses for the coming celebratory season. Doctor Fleischer and his little boy, great favorites of the family, stop by for a boat ride, a whimsical midwinter wish of the delicate child. Udelheid is taking them out when Krüger arrives with...
(The entire section is 1,199 words.)