Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
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 lamentations and apologies. He emphasizes his lamentations by waving a stick of stolen wood and denouncing the security system for the loss of both his wood and his beaver coat. He apologizes for the way he treated Frau Wolff and pleads for Leontine to return to work at higher pay. Frau Wolff assures him that jail is the place for scoundrelly thieves.
In an effort to deceive the authorities, Frau Wolff declares that a waistcoat, a note, and a key have been found by her daughter near the railway station. Her theory is that the thief left them behind when he took the beaver coat to Berlin. However, she seems willing to believe that the thief might still be in the vicinity, all the more so after Wulkow appears in the courtroom to register the birth of a daughter. So many petitioners show up simultaneously that Justice von Wehrhahn cannot get on with his plans to indict Doctor Fleischer for slander on the false testimony of Motes’s landlady, who is quite gullible and ignorant of Motes’s habit of avoiding any kind of payment whatsoever. Doctor Fleischer, however, has knowledge of a beaver coat. While out on the river he saw a boatman—the unfortunate Wulkow, who could not get his boat free of the ice in time to get his wife to Berlin for the expected event—sitting on deck in a new fur coat. This evidence makes no impression on von Wehrhahn; anyone can own a fur coat, he insists, even a boatman. Wulkow assures him that boatmen could easily afford such a coat and that he himself has one. Krüger, not hearing all that was said, criticizes the justice severely for not allowing the good washerwoman to present her daughter’s evidence. He also rebukes the magistrate for consorting with Motes, a man who never pays his bills, who informs on others, and who is even now rigging false evidence. Doctor Fleischer presents documentary proof that Motes extracted evidence from his landlady against himself. All this the justice waved aside.
Wulkow finally succeeds in registering the birth of his daughter. The incriminating evidence against him is thrown out, von Wehrhahn saying that he would have to search every house in the area—Frau Wolff suggests that he start with hers—if such flimsy stories were to be believed. Krüger states that he will not rest until the coat and his stolen wood are found. Von Wehrhahn sends away Motes and his star witness. Frau Wolff, true to her sense of honor, refuses to say anything good of Motes or anything bad of Doctor Fleischer, even though the justice is more than willing to hear such information. He admires her feelings but begs to differ with the honest lady, one whom everyone admires and with whom no one finds fault. To his pronouncement that as sure as she is an honest woman, Doctor Fleischer is a thoroughly dangerous person, Frau Wolff says only that she does not know what to think.