Jehan’s Last Steps – a remarkable mysterious story

by Otto Rahn

In 1934 the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung published in Issue 48 an article by Otto Rahn entitled: Jehans Letzer Gang (Jehan’s Last Steps). The piece told the story of one Jehan Tessenre, a young family man moments away from his execution by Hugeunot troops in reprisal for the death of sixty—two of their brethren.

They had been betrayed by Jehan to the townsfolk of Tarascon who lost no time in tossing them off the same high bridge on which he now stood to a painful death in the gorge below. A first casual reading of the story reveals nothing of obvious interest. In fact, the story is rather bland and on the face of it was something Rahn cobbled together to make a few marks and feed his growling stomach. But peer a little deeper into the text and a recognizable pattern emerges. Pretty similar to another Otto, Otto Maier’s remarkable musings and uttermost bizarre journals.

Berliner Illustrirte

Jehans Letzer Gang

A cloudless day in February, Tarascon. It’s approximately 5pm on the sundial. The snowfields reflect the last rays of the winter sun so that passers—by are blinded; in fact they have to look to the west so as not to miss anything going on at this moment.

On the wooden bridge spanning the deep and wild gorge of the River Ariege there are two men. The elder, taller one is the executioner. The other one, Jehan Tessenre, is now to be transported from life to death. If one falls in the depths from the bridge he’ll be dead. There is no rescue from the terrible currents of the waters that begin in the snowy mountains of Andorra.

Execution

But the judges didn’t have in their minds a death in the water for the delinquent. Jehan is to be hanged at sunset. With the rope around his neck and his hands tied he stands over the gorge on a timber spar that forms a kind of seesaw. The end of the rope is tied to the bridge handrail. Currently, Jehan stands safely by the oblivion but as soon as the executioner will step of the other end of the timber Jehan’s sense of balance will be lost and he’ll fall.

Yes, the judges made sure he cannot escape the punishment: if the rope tears he will die by drowning.

Frightened, Jehan looks into the depths then at the rope. He thinks that if it breaks there is a possible way out. I am a good swimmer. He can’t believe that in a few seconds everything is going to come to an end. He doesn’t want to die. At home in the little house half a mile out of town next to the Lombrives Mountains there is his young wife and two young children.

Duty

Didn’t he do his duty when he warned Tarascon of the planned attack by the Huguenots? It seemed to him as organised by Heaven when he woke in the middle of the night and realised there was a ray of light coming from the nearby Lombrives cave.

He dressed and left the house. Under cover of broom bushes and blackberry hedges Jehan quickly climbed the steep mountain up to the cave, and had just arrived when the beam of light vanished into the depths.

By a path known only to him he entered the cave and listened to the conspiracy: the sixty-two Huguenots waiting near the town intended to attack the castle and the gates that very same night, a plan that would have undoubtedly worked. Wasn’t it his duty to warn the town of the danger?

Death

He shall be killed. He’s not frightened of death! But he has to live because of his children. Who will get bread for them? Who will accompany them through this hard life? And his poor wife is still very young! In all Tarascon there is no happier marriage than theirs. A groan escapes his breast. He knows that Marie will be too weak to work in the fields.

There is little yield from them but it’s enough for the two of them. What is going to happen to his helpless family? Desperately, he tries to pull on his bonds. No result, they won’t move.

He’s going to be hanged as a punishment for the death of the sixty-two conspirators. When they left the cave for the town they were surprised to be attacked from all sides by armed citizens and monks. None of them escaped.

All of them were gagged and the next morning they were thrown from this bridge into the depths. The corpses were fished out of the waters of the Garonne. To take revenge for the death of these martyrs a large number of Huguenot troops arrived a couple of days later. Tarascon, to which he, Jehan, had fled, had to surrender soon after the enemy arrived.

Now he had to pay for the sixty-two.

Will he never see a sunrise again?

The sun gets paler and is about to depart from the sky. Her last mild beams fall on town and valley. Will he never see a sunrise again? If only the rope would tear/ The executioner also looks to the mountains. Soon the moment when the sentence is to be carried out will come. The sun already touches the highest mountaintops.

Terrified, Jehan observes that the executioner slowly turns his head towards the town and waves his hand for the ringing of the poor—sinner bell. Then suddenly—even before Jehan can form the first word of the prayer with which he wanted to die—he feels himself falling. There’s a loud noise in his ears. Darkness surrounds him. He sinks and sinks.

Green glassy light

When he tries to scream ice-cold water penetrates his mouth. He opens his eyes wide. Green glassy light can be seen, becoming brighter and brighter. But however hard he tries Jehan can’t separate his hands. Then a light surrounds him again. It is then that he realises where he is and what happened. The rope tore and he fell into the river!

The water surrounds him. He is chased by the current down into the valley. The evening sky is wide and colourful above him. Yes, the rope tore! He would like to cheer but already his mouth is full of water. Darkness begins to surround him again. He sinks and sinks.

If he can’t free his hands to swim, he will be lost. He can already feel a pain in his breast because he can’t breathe. Again, he tries with all his might to free himself and his bonds, maybe stretched by the water, glide over his hands. He is free!

jehans letzer gang
jehan’s last steps

A failed execution

With three strong strokes he reaches the surface. He sucks in air deeply and relieves his aching lungs. The waters carry him as quick as a flash. He turns his head and looks back.

The wooden bridge on which has was supposed to have died is already very far off in the distance. He can also see the people by the riverbank, witnesses of a failed execution. Yes, he can see them clearly.

They run around, gesture wildly and point at him. He can also see the executioner still standing on the bridge. He also points to him carried away by the waves to freedom.

Freedom

Jehan’s power feels doubled, tripled. He safely manages to escape the currents that try to pull him into the depths. Oh, he is strong!

Never before had he felt that strong. The waters can’t harm him. For a long time he swims on. The dangerous currents are already behind him. There are fewer and fewer whirlpools and the water slows down.

He mustn’t lose time. Time is precious because they will send hunters and horses after him. The best course of action will be to get to the riverbank and climb one of the gorge walls to reach the Catalonian border or the Roussillon. He has got friends there. They could help him.

And once the Catholics rule again he will be able to return to his wife and children. By the way, once rescued he has to send a message to his family immediately so they don’t believe he has been killed in the waves. He reaches land and stretches his limbs breathing in life deeply. He lifts his arms to the sky and gives thanks for the mercy. The first stars begin to flicker.

Night falls

He has to hurry if he doesn’t want to be surprised by night while on the rock face. He quickly crosses the meadows, jumps over a road and assesses where the start of the climb would be most rewarding, and then starts to climb. It wouldn’t be the first time in his life he would climb one of the almost vertical walls.

Today, however, he has to be careful because it is getting dark already. His hands search skilfully for cracks in the rock face then he pulls up his body and supports himself with his feet.

The path

He climbs and climbs. All of a sudden his hand grabs empty space. No matter how hard he tries he can’t find a crack. With his other hand holding a ledge of rock he pulls himself up and continues on with his feet in a safe position.

He wasn’t wrong (to choose this ascent): a path interrupts the rock face and, running parallel to the oblivion, leads up to the top. He follows the path. Luckily, he doesn’t have to climb any more. That’s far too dangerous in the pitch black.

Nobody will think of him in the rocks that late at night. There is no danger of being caught. He climbs and climbs.

Due to the darkness it seems there’s no end to the upward path. Hours must have passed since he started following it. He peers into the depths searching for any light in the distance. Deep darkness is under him and surrounding him.

Darkness

Strange, one should see light somewhere. Jehan stops and listens. He can’t hear a sound. N0 dog is barking. No night bird screams. Nothing! It is strange.

It’s almost like an ominous fear that keeps him going. And again, he climbs and climbs. He can’t see a hand before his eyes. I shouldn’t go on so impetuously, he thinks. He stops again. It feels to him as if he could fly between heaven and earth. He uses both hands to feel around him. He feels something hard and is surprised to realise he touches a tree.

The top of the Mountain

How could he miss the fact that he’s already reached the forest on top of the mountain! Now he can see clearly all the tree trunks in front of him and the treetops covering the flickering stars.

It seems to become brighter and brighter around him. Soon the silvery moonlight penetrates the forest and is reflected by delicate cranberry bushes and ferns.

Free at last

Now the path can easily be found. And who would not know it is easier to walk on the plateau than in the depths of a gorge. With springy steps he goes on. He wanders and wanders all night through. His heart fills with happiness. His chest breathes more and more easily!

He is free! No, it won’t take long anymore and he’ll sit with his wife and children again in front of the fire, and reminisce about the terrible day when both their father and husband should have been taken from them. Comfortable and calm, they will continue their lives. What happens in the towns and rural areas will never again intrude into their quiet lives. Their little world won’t have anything in common any more with the big world out there.

Marie

Jehan smiles. Yes, that’s what he’ll do! Together with the memory of his rescue he will send his wife a piece of a bright cloth that she will wear instead of black.

Then all of the town will know that Marie Tessenre doesn’t have to mourn and that her husband is still alive. Yes, that’s what he’ll do. She always enjoyed dressing up, his Marie. He never did mind, after all she comes from the area around Lavalanet. There, women enjoyed dressing up more that anywhere else.

It is a rich area. He almost didn’t succeed in marrying Marie because of that. One who has no money is worth nothing. But since he, Jehan, is a smart and diligent fellow old Marius didn’t mind giving him his daughter.

It took, however, quite some time until his father-in-law finally agreed to it.

The Wedding day

Jehan smiled again. The wedding day arrived. On this Sunday in May Marie did not initially want to marry because she felt her wedding dress wasn’t fashionable enough. There were lots of tears.

With still-reddish eyes she would finally stand before the altar. Yes, she always enjoyed dressing up, his Marie. How her eyes will flicker and her mouth laugh when she has received a colourful cloth from her rescued husband. He has to think of that as soon as he’s arrived.

But which way should he go? To Catalonia? 0r towards Perpignan in Roussillon? That would be closer and less dangerous! Yes, he will go to Perpignan.

He has faithful friends there and people are Catholic. He ‘s unsure where he is at the moment but he feels he has to climb down into the valley.

In the east the sky starts to Change its colour and he has been wandering all through the night. According to his calculations the sun will rise in the next hour.

The right direction

He doesn’t have to look for the right way any more because the path becomes wider and leads downhill. One could think it is one of the roads leading to Roussillon and that is, thankfully, the direction he aims for.

He continues to walk and is surprised that he doesn’t feel tired at all. His energies derive from the happy knowledge that he escaped a certain death.

And he thinks again of his family. What did Antonin, his eldest—he’ll soon be six—wish for recently? Ah, right, a trumpet. He shall get it. He will get two. Children are not careful with toys therefore it’s better to think about a replacement immediately.

Antonin is a fabulous chap. He looks like his father. He is, however, a little quiet and absent-minded just like his father. But more lively is his second son, Gaston. What will he get him for a present? That’s hard to say. Maybe sweets. Once he is in Carcassonne he will find something.

Carcassonne

The right track?

Carcassonne? But he wanted to go to Perpignan? Jehan has to laugh at himself. First he thinks for ages about where he wanted to go and finally, when he comes to a decision, he forgets about it. A day like the one yesterday can make a man confused.

Is he really on the right track? It should be easy to determine that now, as it‘s bright daylight. He looks around. First, he looks to the top of the mountains because he knows all of them. He always liked the peaks and had climbed the Lombrives Mountains on the wild Soudour to look down at the deep valley and up to Tarascon. He knows every house and every tree there. When he was a boy he stole apples off the trees from the Fournier farm (he’s not afraid of heights ).

He has walked in a circle

And right away: there is the Fournier farm. And he is on one of the slopes of the Lombrives Mountains! At his feet is Tarascon! He can also see the wooden bridge where he would have found death. And there, very close, his house can be seen through the pines. He has walked in a circle!

Terrified, he wonders what he should do now. Shall he rush back to his house and tell his wife he lives? Shall he immediately run away and look for a way out far off”? What shall he do? The questions penetrate his brain. Oh, no! He‘ll try to get to his house without being seen, stay there a moment and then return to the mountain heights. Everybody is still asleep and nobody would expect him at all to survive the waves. It’s only a few steps to his farm. And he knows his wife is already awake: bluish smoke escapes the chimney and the bells of Saint John ring.

The sunset is complete

Jehan is already in the garden. He can‘t wait to hold his wife and children in his arms. The blood rushes through his veins in excitement. It hammers in his neck. It‘s almost painful. He tries to touch it to get some relief. Look at that: the torn piece of rope is still around his neck although he walked the whole night through.

When he tries to slide the rope over his neck his hands won’t move. He can’t separate them! In this moment he feels a terrible blow…

… Just in that moment Jehan Tessenre fell from the wooden bridge into the depths. With a broken neck he hangs from the rope over the waters. The sunset is complete. The poor-sinner bell of Saint John rings.

-for those who have eyes to see-

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