Laura re-tells an event that she says would be almost impossible to believe, had she not witnessed it herself. She goes for a walk with her father on a summer evening along the beautiful forest which lies in front of their schloss. On this walk, he informs her that General Spielsdorf will not be coming to visit them as planned. Spielsdorf was meant to come with his niece Bertha, a girl Laura’s age whom Laura had never met, and Laura is immensely disappointed, as she had been excited about this visit for weeks, hoping that Bertha would abate her loneliness.
Laura’s disappointment at the fact that Bertha won’t be visiting further demonstrates her loneliness and the negative effects of her father’s protectiveness. Although the schloss and the surrounding area is beautiful and idyllic, Laura’s sadness and feelings of isolation showcase that over-protection is not necessarily the best way to parent. It is a sign of Laura’s vulnerability and weakness that she knows nothing of the world outside her schloss.
Laura’s father tells her that the General won’t be arriving for another two months, and that he is glad she never met Bertha because Bertha has died. Laura is shocked by the news, as she knew Bertha was ill but did not suspect it was deadly. Laura’s father gives her the letter written by the General informing them of the tragic news. Laura reads the letter and is shocked by the grief and anger expressed by the General. It details how Bertha died in peace and innocence without ever knowing the true cause of her illness, but that he should have seen the danger in their houseguest, whom he does not name or describe. Spielsdorf states his intention to go off on a journey of discovery, and notes that he will return in two months time.
Here, the reader gets an indication that General Spielsdorf is similar to Laura’s father in how he raised and cared for Bertha. Although Bertha was not his biological daughter, he treated her as though she were, and like Laura’s father he worked hard to protect his niece from the dangers of the world. However, this protection came at a cost, and Bertha paid with her life. Although she died without knowing the true nature of her sufferings, in denying the truth the General was unable to figure out how to help her.
Laura and her father meet up with Laura’s governesses Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De Lafontaine. As the governesses converse behind them, Laura and her father admire the beautiful scene. Saddened by the General’s news and moved by the evening, Laura’s father quotes Shakespeare to convey his sense of not understanding why he is so sad, and his feeling that “some great misfortune [is] hanging over us.” Suddenly, they are interrupted by the sound of a carriage approaching.
In quoting Shakespeare, Laura’s father not only demonstrates that his education sets him apart from poorer classes, but he also foreshadows the danger that lies ahead. His failure to understand the nature of his sadness is similarly indicative of his failure to recognize the truth beyond his own narrow perception of the world. At that moment, the approaching carriage is an undeniable omen to the reader, if not to the characters themselves.
Laura notes that the carriage seems to belong to a person of rank. It begins to speed up and eventually crashes into a lime tree right by the schloss. Laura averts her eyes, but when she dares to look she sees a lady with a commanding air leaving the carriage, and a young lady being lifted out. Laura’s father runs to aid the girl and he assures the woman, who says she’s the girl’s mother, that the girl is alive.
Laura takes notice of the carriage and the type of person it likely belongs to, demonstrating her preoccupation with wealth and status. She also notices the stately manner of the woman who emerges from the carriage, although she is unable to look at the actual scene unfolding. When she is confronted with something potentially dangerous, she turns away to avoid the situation.
The girl’s mother laments her misfortune, claiming that she is on a journey of life or death, and that she must leave her daughter behind, as she can’t delay her trip. She has the idea to leave her daughter in the nearest village, but Laura begs her father to let the girl stay with them, since she longs for a companion after the loss of Bertha. Laura’s father offers to take the girl, promising that they will treat her with the care and devotion that she deserves. He insists that this would be good for him and Laura, as Laura has just been disappointed by the news about Bertha and it would satisfy her desire for a friend.
Once more, Laura expresses her desperate desire for companionship, believing that this stranger can fill the void left by Bertha’s death. Laura’s father, in his efforts to please her, does not think twice about offering the girl a place to stay. Both Laura and her father display a sense of naivety, willing to trust people whom they know nothing about. It is both a sign of their good-nature and their ignorance. In many ways, Laura’s father is no less oblivious than his daughter.
The girl’s mother, who Laura notes has an extremely distinguished appearance, speaks to Laura’s father separately. She suddenly appears stern, and Laura wonders about the change and why her father doesn’t notice. They talk for a few minutes, after which the mother approaches her daughter, who is being watched over by Madame Perrodon. She whispers in the girl’s ear, then kisses her before returning to her carriage and departing.
This instance shows how Laura, as the narrator of the story, does not have all the information—even years later she never fully gets it. This is a result of her father’s desire to protect her, as well as the secretive nature of the woman and her daughter.