Count Ziegland – A Lesson From History

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For this story we must visit central Europe in the year 1880.

Imagine that everywhere and everything all around – the land, the buildings, the businesses and the villages belong to one man, Count Ziegland. He lives in a huge mansion that has over 100 bedrooms. There are wonderfully landscaped gardens with lawns in the middle that spread into the distance from the front door. If you looked out of one of the many front rooms, far away, almost on the horizon, you could see a line of huge oak trees that seem to cross the horizon. They were planted by the founding father of this great family, centuries before. At that time he said the trees represented the good fortune and well-being of the family. He stressed they should never be touched.
Every morning at 06.00 The Count would get up and go for a pre-breakfast ride on one of his favourite racehorses. However, at the time of our tale, The Count is old and not very well. It is his 25 year old, only son that now goes riding each morning. Both Father and son have shared the same passion for horses and racing. It is this young man that one day will inherit everything and carry forward the family’s interests.
One sunny and hot, mid-summer’s morning the son catches one of his favourite riding boots on a root and the leather starts to come loose in one spot. Realising this will only get worse he decides to ride to the local village and seek out a cobbler. That same afternoon, with three servants by his side, he rides into the village and causes quite a stir. It is a rare thing for a member of this rich family to visit such a poor area. They would usually go to the big cities to get anything they wanted.
The count is directed to a run-down wooden building where he is told the old cobbler will do a very good job. On approaching the old man comes out and greets his noble visitor. He invites the count in whilst apologising beforehand because it is very humble inside. It explains that his wife died many years before and he works on his own but has also brought up his only daughter.
The count stays on his horse and shows the cobbler the boot and is told it is an easy job and will be done free for such a wonderful young man. The old man calls inside the house to Maria, his daughter, to bring out a refreshing, cool drink for their illustrious visitor and a few seconds later she appears.
Now, in Sicily they call it “The Thunderbolt”. Sometimes it just happens and right then, at that moment, it happened to the young count. When he first saw Maria, this immensely wealthy young man, was hit by that very same thunderbolt and he felt as if he had been kicked by a horse. For a second he could not catch his breath and he was speechless. Gradually recovering, almost as if from a hefty punch in the stomach, he immediately dismounted, took his drink and started a conversation with this vision of a young lady that stood before him. At that moment he knew, he just knew. There was no doubt. This young girl was the one for him and there would never be another like her.
Doing the gentlemanly thing he then approached the cobbler and asked permission to call upon his daughter the following day. From the burst of blushes on Maria’s face, it was obvious to the old man that she certainly liked the idea and so the time was fixed.

I will not go into the details. We simply need to know that, in the most proper fashion, love blossomed between these unlikely two people. One a poor peasant girl and the other a fabulously rich young man who would one day own everything in sight and well beyond.
Gradually, without rush, Maria was taught the polite manners of the rich classes and three months later the young noble got down on one knee and offered Maria a ring with a huge diamond, so that one day soon they could marry. The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” and Maria goes home seeming to float on air. She too is very deeply in love with this gallant and noble young man.
Of course, matters are rarely as straight forward as this and so we must look at another side to the story. Whilst this fairy tale love affair is proceeding, the old count is becoming more and more ill. His health is fading. The old man is happy for his son to have a girlfriend and tells him to enjoy himself. However, when his son tells him that he intends to marry Maria the old man is shocked and tells him he cannot do that. He insists that the girl is a gold digger. He says it has always been the way that the men of this ancient family take a wife who is also wealthy. In this way the empire and fortune they have built will continue to grow. He tells his son he must not marry Maria.
The son agrees, in order to avoid an argument but in fact keeps on seeing Maria. He dare not tell her what his Father says. He decides that one day all decisions will be his and his alone and that he must marry the girl he loves.
Later, the old count summons his son and tells him that he knows they are still meeting and begs him to stop. In fact this happens a few times over the next few weeks and often ends in angry words.

A week later, the young man is out with his servants, once again visiting Maria, when a rider gallops up very fast and urges the son to rush to his Father’s sick bed, where it is feared there is little time left.

Maria is fully understands as her “husband to be” rides off and she settles down to wait for news.

Back at the country manor the boy goes to his Father’s bed and finds him very weak but still able to whisper. As evening draws in and it is clear the end is near, the old man whispers to his son to consider that once his father dies the son will become “The Count”. From that moment he will have absolute power over everyone and everything and that he can marry anyone he likes. He tells his son to think very carefully. The Father then forbids his son to marry “the peasant girl”.

Two minutes later the old man dies.

All through the night, as servants sort things out around him, the new young count stares out of the window. His mind is racing. There is a saying that “Power Corrupts” making people change in a most selfish way, although this usually takes place slowly. I must tell you now that the total power of being the new count and knowing he can do anything, including marry anyone or perhaps just have lots of girlfriends, goes straight to this young man’s head. Over the space of those few hours staring out of his window until the sun starts to rise, this gallant and noble young man changes completely and by the morning he has decided never to see Maria again. He has, almost instantly, become selfish and self-centred. He knows that he has asked her to marry him and they are engaged, which cannot be broken under the laws of that country but he thinks to himself, “Let her try and force it! I own the courts and judges around here. They would never dare go against me!” He then stands and decides to continue his daily routine with his usual early morning ride along the oak trees that he could see in the distance. He is thinking, “My oak trees. My everything.”

 

Now, as you can imagine, Maria was waiting and waiting whilst continuing to hear nothing. The “new” selfish and smug count had not been brave enough to tell her so that, just maybe, some sort of anger might get her through this ordeal.  After 4 weeks the cobbler is becoming extremely worried. His daughter is hardly eating and he has asked the doctor to come out twice. One day he decides to go to the count’s estate and tell him what his happening, as he fears his daughter will die of a broken heart. The next day he rides up to the huge front door and pulls a big handle that rings a bell. Eventually a servant opens the door and asks him his business. The cobbler explains and asks him to tell the count that Maria is dying. 5 minutes later the servant returns to say that his master’s favourite racehorse has a cold and he has does not want to be interrupted. The cobbler is shocked at how heartless this is and enquires whether the count knows that Maria is dying, to which the servant replies, “Yes sir, the count is aware.”

In a very dark mood, the cobbler slowly makes his way home. He has had to walk both ways because he cannot afford a horse.

I’m very sad to say that three weeks later Maria passed away, truly dying of a broken heart. The cobbler cannot believe how cowardly, weak and selfish the count has been. He sits and stares. Now it seems, there is nothing to live for. He decides his life is over. He thinks back and remembers that, many years ago, he had fought in the army to protect people such as this count and all his estates. Now he regrets it but these thoughts stir up an idea. He goes rummaging through old boxes and trunks and eventually finds his army uniform and other memorabilia of those days when he was a fit, young man. Eventually, wrapped in an oily cloth, to stop it from rusting, he finds his old army pistol. He takes it and looks at what else might be there. He finds four bullets. He has no idea whether they will still fire after all this time.

The next day, both angry and crying he goes out into the forest well away from all the people. He then puts a small box on a tree stump and fires three of the bullets. They all work and the third one hits the box. He now has one bullet left. “Well,” he thinks to himself, “I only want one bullet.”

Well before dawn the next day he sets off walking and is able to reach the line of oak trees in front of the huge house. He hides behind the biggest one, checks his gun and waits.

About 90 minutes later along rides the count on his favourite racing horse.

The cobbler waits until the rider is very close, steps out, points the gun and says, “Halt.” The count is clearly terrified and stops immediately. Nobody has ever dared to threaten him before.  He dismounts as ordered and the cobbler makes him stand with his back to the tree with the large house in the distance on the other side. In this way, if anybody were to look out of a window, the tree would hide them both.

The count grovels and begs for mercy. He even asks the cobbler to shoot his favourite and most valuable racehorse but just not him! The cobbler listens to none of it. He slowly explains in sobs what it is like to watch your daughter die of a broken heart and then he takes aim. The count squeezes his eyes shut in fear and the cobbler fires. The count drops to the ground. The cobbler throws the gun on the ground in disgust. He had never shot a person before and had been very nervous. He then walks away.

Unfortunately, because this is a true story, I cannot tell you what happened to the cobbler. Despite many searches he was not found. It seems he quite literally walked out of the story. The local people believe that he will have walked to the nearest port and got a job on a ship where there is always a place for somebody with his skills. The fact is we will never know.

 

However, now we must return to The Count lying under a tree. After about an hour his eyelids start moving and he gradually comes round. He slowly stands up and pats himself down trying to find the wound but there is no sign of blood. Eventually he turns and looks at the tree and there, just over where his left shoulder would have been, is a neat small hole. He realises that the cobbler had missed and this was the final resting place of the bullet. He also realised he had fainted from fear and also wet himself. He decided to sneak back to the house, change clothes and then start the search for the cobbler. Many people believe that it was this extra delay, not wanting people to know about his “accident” that gave the cobbler that extra bit of time to get away. In case you are wondering, it was The Count’s laundry staff that noticed the embarrassing stains on his trousers. By that evening the whole village knew and within a week everybody within 50 miles was aware.

Of one thing we can be sure. The count came to believe that he could never be hurt and that he was just too rich and important to die. In fact, once again very selfishly, he decided that God would always protect him.

Two weeks later, having paid detectives a fortune to hunt down the cobbler, the count set off on a journey around the world, each morning waking up believing himself to be even more special and important a rich person than he was the day before. He did not return for 18 months but during his travels he made two important decisions. Firstly, he would never stop paying for detectives to hunt down the old cobbler. He was determined to make an example of this old man who dared to attack him. He would build a gallows outside his shop and hang him whilst making the people of the village watch.

The second decision was that his destiny in life was to make the family name very successful in the world of horse racing. In fact he bought some extremely expensive race horses when he visited Arabia, which has always had a reputation for such things. These were shipped back to The Count’s stables to await his arrival.

Eventually, on his return the count did indeed start making a name for the family, after all horses were the one thing he knew about and the stallions he bought in Arabia proved to be very keen racers.

After five years The Count’s training stables have become the finest in the land. He has already made two more trips abroad to buy other horses. Once again they had all proved to be excellent on a race course and it was generally agreed that he had found something at which he was very good. Within ten years his family name was becoming internationally known for winning some of the best prizes in horse racing and he was making a considerable profit.

Throughout this time two things remained constant. The search for the cobbler continued. Revenge was vital to him. Secondly, The Count always went for his early morning ride along the line of oaks. In fact it was early one morning, whilst galloping along, that he had an idea as to how he could become even more successful. He would build his own race course along this very track and people would pay to come and sit in fancy stands and watch the finest race horses compete. Looking at the lie of the land he immediately realised that the oak trees would have to go and was only dimly aware of his father often telling him that those trees must never be touched. Of course being such a big-headed young man he dismissed this old tale. He was far too successful in life to worry about things like that and so, as soon as he got back to the house, he started planning. All sorts of engineers were consulted and they all agreed that, if a magnificent race course with large stands for seating the crowd, was to be built then the trees would have to go. Once again, when the family lawyer pointed out that according to family history, the trees should not be touched, the idea was again dismissed.

Caught up in the enthusiasm, teams of workmen were employed the following week and the trees were gradually cut down bit by bit until large tree stumps about 2m high were left in the ground. At this point teams of horses were brought in and they would be attached to the top and bottom of each stump. Then they would pull and pull until eventually the roots gave way and the remains of each, once proud tree, would finally be pulled from the soil. Sometimes it took two to three days with six teams of horses taking turns. All went according to plan and everything went exactly to the count’s timetable. Well, everything that is, until they came across the very largest and last remaining tree stump, which steadfastly refused to move. It was huge. After two weeks of delays The Count was getting annoyed. He expected things to be perfect and this was all wrong. He wanted his project to be finished by the summer so that he could open his new racecourse and start getting some money back during the warm weather.

After another week and with the engineers continuing to report little or no progress, the count lost his temper. He had never been a patient man. He stepped in, threw insults at the engineers, and said that he would solve this problem himself and show them how stupid they all were. That same day he rode in a carriage (accompanied by servants) some distance away to a local mine where he demanded to be allowed to buy dynamite, wires and a detonator.

The owner of the mine could see the count was in a very bad mood and decided that it would not be a good idea to point out it was against the law for anyone but the very top experts to have access to dynamite. So he duly handed over two sticks to which the count demanded more saying, “I’m going to show those useless engineers how it should be done.”

On returning home and just before it started to get dark, he ordered some holes to be drilled into the stump where he put 10 sticks of dynamite. One engineer dared to speak up saying that, whilst he was no expert, he did think that was far too much explosive. The reply was, “If you want a job done do it yourself. Stand back and watch.”

Then, with the wires stretching some distance from the tree they were connected to the detonator which had a plunger on top. The count shouted, “Take cover if you’re scared,” but he made sure that he stood tall and proud. He wanted everybody there to see him as being exceedingly brave. Of course dear reader, we know the truth.

Counting down, three, two, one, the count firmly pressed the plunger. There was an almighty blast, far bigger than anybody had expected and the men who were standing struggled to stay on their feet. Everyone looked on as the smoke settled. There was nothing left of the stump in the ground although fragments of wood were falling everywhere and then somebody shouted, “The count!” There he was, on the ground lying face down, completely still. People rushed over and turned him face up to see if he had been wounded. What they saw was a neat round hole in his forehead.

I am sure you have worked it out dear reader but there is more to tell.

It was soon shown that a bullet had lodged deeply in The Count’s brain and killed him instantly. It was clear that somebody had shot him. After much investigation, which eventually involved the original cobbler’s gun, it was proved that the very same bullet, from all those years ago, had finally hit the target after being flung out of the last tree stump by an overly massive explosion.

However, the tale does not quite finish there. I’m sure you may have realised that, as the count had not married Maria or had children, this meant the estate had to be split between hundreds of disagreeable, greedy and distant relatives who all fought to try and get the most for themselves. Within a year the house and the lands had been sold. The estate of the count was broken up and ceased to exist.

You must make your own mind up whether the ruin of this rich family is due to him ignoring the one and only love of his life and not having a child or whether the oak trees had something to do with it. Personally, in my view, it is a mixture of both. I have found in life that fate has a habit of conjuring up some sort of reply to pure, selfish greed. Some people simply say, “What goes around comes around.”

 

Note: A possible predictive text in the classroom.