The Beggarwoman of Locarno by Heinrich von Kleist

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The apparent impetus for telling this strange history is the sight of a castle ruin as it might be noticed by a traveler descending into northern Italy from the St. Gotthard Pass. As if in reply to such a traveler’s question of how the castle has fallen into disuse and ruin, the narrator tells the story of the beggarwoman of Locarno, in which an old woman comes begging at the castle gate, is taken in at the Marquise’s orders, and is given a place to sleep for the night in one of the castle’s unused rooms. When the Marquis returns from the day’s hunting, however, he peevishly orders the beggarwoman from her place in one corner of the unused room to a spot behind the stove at the opposite side. In her effort to get up, her crutch slips on the polished floor, and she falls, injuring her spine. Laboriously and painfully, she finally stands and hobbles to the corner as bidden, but on reaching the spot, she collapses and dies of her injury.

The incident is evidently forgotten for some years, during which the Marquis’s fortunes decline to the point that he begins to think of selling his domain, and the chance arrival of a Florentine nobleman seems to offer such an opportunity. Without further thought, the master and mistress of the house give their prospective buyer lodging in the same unused chamber for the amount of time that he may require to consider the purchase. However, in the middle of the night, the man comes downstairs, pale with fright, to report that his room is haunted by a spirit. He describes the ghostly presence as some invisible thing that arose from a corner of the chamber with a sound as if from a bed of straw, walked with slow, feeble steps across the room, and collapsed with moans and gasps behind the stove. The Marquis tries to reassure his guest and offers to spend the rest of the night with him in the uncanny room as proof that no harm could come to him there, but the knight declines the offer, asks to sleep until morning sitting in a chair, and with the new day continues his journey without delay.

From this time on, the rumor circulates that a ghost inhabits the castle, and several more prospective buyers are frightened off by the tale of what the first one experienced there. The Marquis therefore resolves to discredit the rumor by spending a night in the room himself. To his horror, he experiences, at the stroke of midnight, exactly what the Florentine knight had described. The following morning, he furtively tells his wife that a ghost does indeed inhabit the chamber. She is alarmed by the news but proposes that they confirm it beyond any doubt before...

(The entire section is 725 words.)