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 to a lawyer. Meyerhofer is compelled to give up his harvest and, in addition, to pay a heavy fine.
After the older brothers are sent away to school, there is no money to educate Paul, who is sent to confirmation classes. He sees Elsbeth Douglas there, and he even sits near her. She is kind to the boy and goes out of her way to speak to him. The Erdmann brothers tease them about the friendship and say that Paul is sweethearting. Hating ridicule, Paul seldom speaks to Elsbeth Douglas after that.
Paul toils on the farm for five years and gets little help from his father. Once, when he is out seeding a distant field, Paul sees Elsbeth Douglas. Delighted to see him again, she gives him a book of Heinrich Heine’s poetry; she is impressed with Paul’s ability to whistle whole symphonies. Once after she was abroad for a long time, a party is given on her return, to which Paul and his family are invited. The rest of the Meyerhofers go early in the day, but Paul goes after dark so that no one will see his shabby clothes. He watches his two sisters having a merry time, and he sees his father talking grandly with Mr. Douglas.
Out of sympathy for Paul, Mr. Douglas agrees to go in with Meyerhofer on one of his schemes. On the strength of Mr. Douglas’s endorsement, Meyerhofer borrows money recklessly. When he hears what is going on, Mr. Douglas comes to the farm and tells Meyerhofer to stop. Meyerhofer sets the dog on him, but Mr. Douglas, though bitten, chokes the savage beast. While Paul is apologizing to his neighbor, Meyerhofer attacks a servant, Michel, who had watched the scene. Michel picks up an ax. Paul takes it away from him and throws it down a well. Then he carries his struggling father into the house. From that day on, Paul is master in the household.
While Paul is wandering late one night near Helenenthal, he sees brilliant flames shooting from his farm buildings. Michel had fired the barn. Paul is able to save the house, the livestock, and the old steam engine, but everything else is lost.
Beaten in spirit, Elsbeth dies a lingering death. At the funeral, Paul sees Elsbeth Douglas again. Since her own mother is incurably ill, she feels a strong bond of sympathy for Paul. Later Paul, with the aid of books on mechanics sent by his remote brothers, begins to rebuild the steam engine that was his father’s folly. He works so hard that he has little time to look after his sisters. One night he overhears them in the meadow with the Erdmann boys and learns that his sisters’ honor was smirched by his old enemies. Waiting in a deserted road for them at night, he forces them at pistol point to swear they will marry Katie and Greta.
Paul finally gets the old steam engine operating, and he begins to cut and market peat. As his trade increases, he becomes a man of substance and travels about Germany. He hears of Elsbeth Douglas from time to time and knows that she plans to marry her cousin.
One night, eight years after their barn burned, Paul suspects that his father is planning to burn the Douglas barn. To divert him from his mad deed, he sets fire to his own house and barn and is seriously burned in the flames.
Paul is taken to Helenenthal. The searchers find Meyerhofer dead of a stroke near the Douglas barn, a broken pot of petroleum by his side. Although it is Elsbeth Douglas’s wedding day, she insists on staying by Paul’s bed. The vicar is sent away, and her cousin leaves. For many weary days, Elsbeth Douglas watches over Paul.
After his recovery, Paul is tried for the deliberate burning of his own house. Admitting his guilt, he blames himself for always being so timid and withdrawn. Now that he has lost everything, he feels free at last. Dame Care, who was his nemesis all of his life, is routed. Paul is sentenced to two years in prison. On his release, Elsbeth Douglas and Mr. Douglas meet him to take him home. Both Helenenthal and Elsbeth Douglas will be his.
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