Four men vie for superiority in a small German coastal town: Peter Vauk, a socialist firebrand who works as ship’s pilot; the mayor, Christoph Westphal; the local noble landowner, Bernard von Autrum; and the young clergyman, Pastor Elgett. But their fates are tied together by a stronger-willed teenager, Lisa Westphal, who seeks for … calm.
Critical Reception (from original publication):
All those who read books encounter a quite peculiar literary vision in Georg Engel, and the wonder of his fiction becomes greater and more powerful with every new work which his great love and great joy in the world gifts us. Had his last works already moved many into a frenzy of delight, so too has German literature been enriched by his novel “The Four Kings”, a work whose rapturous, heavenly beauty, whose gentle simplicity, whose untamed power, and whose profound thoughtfulness stand out from the times. – Saale-Zeitung, Halle.
Georg Engel’s work is a great song of love, a book which will attract many friends. Because a strong, unshakeable belief in the victorious power of good resides in it, we will love it like a vessel filled with precious, immortal contents. – Königsberger Hartungsche Zeitung
Thus two people parted, between whom a single, open word of truth and a discussion would have sufficed to forge the mutual trust still tighter and more intimately than before. Understanding and forgiveness, in that exists the lime and mortar which every marriage needs in order to construct a secure, comfortable house. Woe to the coexistence which lacks this binding agent. Their homestead disintegrates, and at their table sits an uncouth, strange fellow as guest. He stretches his feet out, bangs on the tabletop and sneers from his crooked mouth, “Oh, you muttonhead, you indeed did not invite me, but I am not like that, I come by myself to such dear friends. I thrust stinging nettles and hemlock onto your plate, and after you have choked that down, then you can no longer dispense with me. I am mistrust.”
A few steps away from the pilot’s house, there where one of the tiny lanes of Schwanendanz deviated from the street along the shore, a tall poplar stood staring into the air in the middle of the way. The wind was swishing and whistling in the young switches of the new growth, and the leaves whispered and muttered.
“Not past here — not past here,” the prattling voices warned. “Turn into the lane — into the lane, for here lurks those, those who want to catch you. Do you not see then, girl?”
“Yes, yes,” Lisa murmured, and bent her head forward to fathom anxiously the secret of the old tree. “What is there then? Why am I frightened of going past there?”
Only, straight afterwards, she was again paralysed by her leaden thoughtlessness, so that she swayed indifferently and without deliberation towards the massive poplar.
“Oh, these pains in my feet,” was the only thing she was able to think. “And this iron pressure under my hair. He hit me there. Yes, yes, he struck me,” she added, shaking her head and without emotion.
With lowered head, and just staring at her feet on the way, she crept onwards.
From behind the trunk, two dark figures emerged out of the shadow of the tree. The one slimmer figure remained upright leaning close against the bristly wood, but the other thrust himself broad and bulky across the middle of the street by the shore. The figure swayed up and down, and slowly spread its arms as if it were intending to grope forwards or grasp something.
Then the girl faltered.
“Jesus!”, she cried.
All of a sudden, the strength and consciousness streamed back into her. The man there before her, that was — that was —.
Oh, now she knew what stood before her. Now her life up to then rattled together. All the insecure happiness which she had sought and found was trampled by crushing feet and she herself was placed on the chain, triply, quadruply, like the whimpering dog in the backyard.
No, not that, never ever. Darkness was still at work about her. Creeping blackness stretched across the way. And her joints and muscles abruptly jerked into the old litheness as if they could not wait for the moment of the race anymore.
She awoke. Her mouth opened, and exposed both rows of shimmering teeth. Everything she had experienced was forgotten. Now the wild, ungoverned girl was dominated only by an urge, the raging desire to not be caught anew and thrown to the ground.
At least not by this man.
“Stop,” it threatened from the other side.
Then she ducked. Slick as an eel, she shot past under the outspread arms which groped after her. The next moment, her skirts were already whirling, fluttering and hurtling along the dark rows of houses.
One more leap — another and yet another, and she had reached the house of the Mayor. Now just a push against the front door, and the next moment, she would scurry in, the clothes would fly from her, and the magnificent, Flemish farmer’s bed would take her in, from which the ungently aroused girl, the girl threatened by men’s fists, would sit up in infinite astonishment as soon as it occurred to the hulking man to bend his head down spying over her place of slumber.
And then, then she would giggle, and shake her head until her auburn hair fluttered about, and would snap her fingers, and deny and defend herself.
A powerful blow hit the door.
Almighty God, what did that mean though?
Bolted, locked. No entrance stood open to her; it was clear, her oppressor must have already arrived home before, and have checked it.
What happened now just whirled about her like a circle of mocking, screaming ghosts who held her fast by their bony hands to refuse her a way out.
There was the man!