Two Tales of Old Strasbourg, by Henry Handel Richardson

Life And Death of Peterle Luthy

Peterle was born in hospital. — The first hiccuppy breaths drawn, his little body washed and swathed, he was wheeled, together with his mother, down the corridor to another ward, and put to sleep under a feather-bed in a blue-and-white checked covering. Seven beds stood in this ward, with seven cots beside them, and five were in use when Peterle came to his. The seventh was taken possession of before sunset. Again the doors of the ward opened, to admit two attendants pushing a truckle-bed. The new arrival was a sturdy fellow, who had all but been the death of the young girl his mother: she lay white as chalk, her eyes closed, her auburn hair tumbled loose on the pillow. — Meanwhile Peterle, bottle to mouth, was engaged in learning to suck; and the imbibing of a smooth sweet fluid, that lulled and sated, was the first good joy he knew.

Peterle was very puny: emotional visitors clasped their hands and turned up their eyes at the sight of him. But he was of a contented humour, and would occupy himself for minutes on end, making worm-like movements of his fingers before his face, in a vain attempt to guide them to his mouth. If a sunbeam tickled his nose he sneezed, and then his tiny wizened face puckered into a thousand fresh crinkles and creases — like the hands of a laundress on Monday evening. Every day a square of sunshine took a journey across him, his bed standing next one of the high windows that opened on the garden. It travelled over his mother, too, who, to begin with, so weak was she, could hardly raise her arm to pat him when he cried; she lay and dozed in the warmth, a delicate-looking girl, with fine princess hands, which years of scouring and scrubbing had not disfigured.

On the third day, pulling herself up in bed, she moistened her handkerchief and cleaned out the corners of the infant’s mouth and nose. In the afternoon came visitors. Peterle had just emptied a bottle, and, exhausted with the labour of drinking, had fallen asleep. On being handled he wakened, was sick, and uttered shrill cries.

His grandmother shook her head.

“Well, well!” was her heaved sigh of comment on him, as she put him back in his cot, where he fretted himself to sleep again. — She was a pale, thin, tidy woman, with a face which, in its ineffectual flatness, resembled a mask of scantly worked clay. The grinding years, instead of deepening the charactery, had blurred . . . erased.

With her were the babe’s two brothers. Gustave, who had arrived at breeches, neither felt nor feigned an interest in the newcomer. Thumb in mouth, noisily shuffling his feet, he strayed round the ward, staring with a child’s audacious curiosity at the bedridden women, and dragging a sticky finger unrebuked over tables and chairs. But Willi, who had seen only three summers, gurgled with joy on discovering his mother, and made for her outstretched arms with all the speed his infirmity permitted: his legs were so bandy that, when he walked, he staggered, like an old salt taking land. And Peterle’s mother forgot Peterle over him; for Willi was the apple of her eye. In briefly responding to the elder woman’s brief questions, it was Willi’s butter-coloured hair she smoothed, Willi’s eyes she looked into — two limpid, black-fringed pools, that had caught and kept a glint of the May blueness on which they, too, had opened.

A bell rang; the handful of strangers retired; the ward resumed its everyday air. Sinking as into downy depths, the weary childbearers surrendered themselves anew to a dreamless repose; and the hush was broken only by the quickly stilled wail of an infant, or the flip-flop of a nurse’s bast shoes. For days Peterle lay at peace in his generous bed: he slept, sucked, and stared into the sunshine: and, except when raised to be stripped of his swaddling, found life a very pleasant state of being.

On the morning when he was nine days old, his mother threw off her coverings, and having reached a chair, dressed first herself, then Peterle, whom she bound to a pillow. Downstairs in the tesselated corridor, where lilac rapped and beckoned at the windows, the perambulator was in waiting — a big-bellied clothes-basket on wheels. Peterle, placed in it, was topped by a feather-bed, and trundled out on his homeward journey.

It was May, and a dazzling morning; streets and houses lay as if new-scoured in the strong, pure light. The steep roofs shone gaily red; their dormer windows flashed and twinkled. In old walled gardens, snowy masses of fruit-blossom seemed to focus the sunlight and give it back intensified. On the banks of the river ancient wood-encrusted buildings, square bridge-towers, the prim, delicate lines of a chateau, all lived again, to their tenderest details, in the water at their feet. Distances were marvellously clear. To the north a chain of mountains drew its bold profile against the sky; behind the town, a second chain rose a little more nearly, a little less boldly: a ridge of infinitely blue hills, deeper in tint where a cloud’s shadow hovered or a valley narrowed — two natural walls to the fertile, Rhine-washed plain. Peterle’s mother had not far to go, but she covered the ground painfully: the roads were cobbled, and her unused feet burned. Her way led her through the old inner town, where the winding streets were narrowest; the electric tram-cars, which came bounding along in a series of jerks, were so incongruously big that they called to mind unnatural stage proportions. Twelve o’clock had not yet rung out from the many steeples, but in shops and offices the midday rest had already been called, and the pavements were black with people. In the roadway companies of soldiers, in various uniforms, were returning to barracks from drill on the military grounds outside the city gates: at their head rode or strode their lieutenant, dusty and begrimed as they. Peterle’s mother paused, with a quickened interest, to watch a handful of sappers salute a general: he pranced by, proud and gaudy, and the parade-step hammered the stones. On a bridge spanning the river she drew up anew, to look over at the fishers who dotted the paved footpath that ran level with the water: they stood vacant yet absorbed, lost in ponderous expectation of the fish that never bit. Farther downstream were moored the floating wash-houses — shallow, roofed barges, in which women knelt to scrub, and rinse, and wring. Alongside of the tramway lines, sturdy dogs strained at their harness in milk and ice-carts; vegetablemongers cried their wares; yellow post-vans, manned by blue-coated officials, lumbered heavily. Over all this noise and colour, over toiling women, fishermen and soldiers, over a congeries of gabled housetops, hooded chimneys, storks’ nests, rose the slender solitary tower of the immortal Minster, a landmark on the plain for many a mile round — from afar off, when the rest of the town still lay level with the horizon, this spire rose like a giant finger pointing skywards — and, in wandering about the place, did one by chance turn into a certain little narrow street, the vast pile itself, all the red-brown glories of portal and facade, broke upon the sight with a splendour that took the breath away. Seen thus, by one standing midge-like in the shade of its mighty walls, the lace-work of the tapering spire pierced so far into the sky, was so little more than a streak of filigree against the blue, that it was hard to believe it the work of human hands: the ancient houses, six and seven stories high, that ringed in the square, reached but to the foot of the great rose-window. And when storms were abroad, and clouds raced and flew, it was possible to fancy one saw, with the naked eye, the yielding swing of the frail apex to the wind.

In his wheeled bed, Peterle blinked and averted his face from the too vivid light. Before the open stall of an arcade he made a long halt, his bald head bare to the sun, while his mother, over some trivial purchase, drank in the gossip of the saleswoman, the immense black bow of whose head-dress filled the narrow opening like the outspread wings of a bat. Crossing a leafy square, the two entered a side street. In this, Peterle’s home to be, the pavement formed a mere edging to the houses, from the Overhanging upper stories of which the inmates could talk across in everyday tones.

At a doorway two men were standing. One had a long black cigar between his lips.

“BOSCHUR, MAMSELL HENRIETTE!” he greeted affably, steadying the cigar with his hand: it was an itinerant vegetable-hawker, who lodged in the family attic. “Welcome home! But you bring back more luggage than you started with. I see!”

A binder’s apprentice from the ground floor capped the pleasantry; and both laughed.

Peterle’s mother did not turn colour. “BOSCHUR BISAMME!” she gave back politely and impassively. Then, since it was beyond her strength to get the perambulator, with Peterle in it, up the two high steps leading to the front door, she first carried in the child, whom she laid on the wooden lid of the pump, just over the threshold; then, returning, dragged, bumped and coaxed the unwieldy carriage after.

It was a very old house, of generous proportions. In earlier times, before the town had burst its girdle of river and canal, this alley had been an aristocratic dwelling-place; and the heavily brassed door, which now swung to and fro on its leather pad, had remained shut to the street, in proud reserve. Both flights of stairs ended in landings the size of a goodly room. On the first of these, the walls were composed of enormous presses, built in, and faced with mirrors — or what had once been mirrors; for the glass had long since disappeared: great cupboards, in which a man could stand upright. On the second story they were wanting: but, in the low, spacious rooms themselves, the fireplaces, supplanted now for a score or more years by unlovely iron stoves, were equally ornate with those of the BEL-ETAGE: oil-paintings and small looking-glasses were inserted in their woodwork, which was carved by hand, and had once been white.

This upper landing, which Peterle’s mother reached panting for breath, was sand-strewn, and two oleanders grew in tubs. In a dark little kitchen overlooking the courtyard, a man with his arm in a sling sat smoking, an empty wine-carafe on the table before him. His chin was sunk on his breast, and he did not glance up at the ascending step; nor did Peterle’s mother pause to greet him. She went past, into the front room where she housed with her children, and, in default of the perambulator, laid her infant on one of the great feather beds, in a nest burrowed out by Willi and still warm.

On entering the kitchen she found her stepfather in the same dejected attitude.

“No better, Father?”

He shook his head, without speaking. He was down on his luck at present. A stone mason, earning his six marks a day, he had had the misfortune to break his arm: it had been set crooked by a quack in the neighbourhood; and when he went, under protest, to the hospital, the doctors had held it necessary to re-break and re-set the limb. — In person, he was a small, blond, sallow man, with a pair of ethereal blue eyes.

Peterle’s mother, while waiting for a pan of milk to boil, drew a chair to the table.

He eyed her lackadaisically. “Where’s the child?”

She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder, wasting no words. She was reckoning up the days that must elapse before she could go out to work again. — Not that there was any very pressing need for her to do so. Besides what Mother earned by charring, they had three of their rooms let; and this was enough to keep them; for they were thrifty folk. Still, Father, as a good German, liked his chunk of beef in the pot at midday — liked a genuine meat soup, not a sham one, such as was sometimes served in even the best houses — and his keg of red wine in the cellar. The children ran through boots and clothes; there was now an extra mouth to feed; while she, too, if she was to dance this summer, must have a new blouse, a neckerchief, a pair of pointed shoes. — And, as she sat there, her hands open in her lap, her body as limp as though some of the bones had been withdrawn from it, Henriette let her thoughts stray to one of her partners of the year before: a merry, black-eyed Italian overseer this, who had brought a gang of navvies up over the Gotthard, and, on leaving, had more than half-promised to return. In fancy she talked hot nothings with him at FUCHS AM BUCKEL, or tripped it at the MESSTI in Ruprechtsau . . .

Meanwhile, though, such dreams were idle: there was Peterle to watch and tend. And this, and much more, she did, with the mute and stoic patience that was in her. Unaided, too. For, regularly at seven of the clock, Peterle’s grandmother pinned on shawl and apron, took her big covered basket, and went forth to char. She was in constant demand, being the pink of cleanliness, and honesty itself; and never of her own free will did she spend a day at home. This setting out of a morning was her panacea, HER method of surmounting the dullness of existence. She savoured the excitement of seeing below the surface of strange households; forgot herself and her home troubles in sipping at the overflow of other people’s fates. And so Henriette, left to herself, washed, dressed and fed her children; cooked the family meals; held the house spotless; and for a time her sole outing was to the market, whence she would come back bearing, on top of the necessaries, such dainties as half a pound of frogs’ hind legs, delicate and juicy, a bowl of green gherkins, or red cranberries, or blue bilberries; or, greatest titbit of any, a lump of jellied eel.

In the sunny front room, Peterle, a tiny prisoner to life, lay stretched and bound in his carriage bed. Between sunrise and sunset a variety of things happened to him. Fairly early he was washed; and thereby he learned to know the taste of yellow soap, and to writhe under its cruel bite in the eye. Then, his top having been coated, his naked legs were seized and thrust into a kind of pillow-case, in which they were tied up. Only when a fresh loincloth became necessary were they free to kick and sprawl — two diminutive sticks, lean as the bare wish-bones of a chicken. His feeding-bottle was his first love; and its appearance had power to throw him into transports of delight, long before he was able to recognise her who held it: as if mounted on wires, his tiny arms would work towards it, his hampered legs feebly trying to imitate the motion. Next in favour stood his “comforter” though with this he could, on occasion, pick a quarrel. But just awake, his judgment still cloudy with sleep, he would start, did he find this friend at his lips, to suck with tremendous energy, believing it to be the mouthpiece of his adored bottle; and then, instead of the soft thick flow of milk, empty air-bubbles would drive down his little gullet. — Gradually, there emerged from chaos the gracious author of bottle and comforter, and he learned to know the touch of the kind hands that caressed his body. His brothers, on the contrary, were early objects of fear to him. Gustave pinched him on the quiet, and made ugly faces at him, once, too, dropping into the perambulator something slimy and ice-cold, which hopped on to Peterle’s face, and caused him to make agonised protest. Willi was less to be dreaded. Willi snuggled down beside him, slobbered over him, and indulged in wild bouts of tickling him in the stomach. He practically never went out. His world was the big old square wicker perambulator, the dark walls of which hemmed him in on three sides, the fourth consisting of his featherbed, beneath which, throughout the summer, he lay unresistant. For sky he had the dingy ceiling of the room, on which the flies walked upside down. These flies were his enemies: they descended by the dozen to investigate his sticky little lids, to feed on his succulent dribblings. And his blind strokes fought them in vain, or dismayed them only for an instant: they retired, rubbed their probosces. clean, and came back to tickle and bite anew.

Thus the first tender weeks slipped away, added themselves to a month, then to two, and to three. In the life around the perambulator certain changes took place. Even twice-broken arms heal at last; and, sooner or later after childbirth, the colour comes back to the cheek, springiness to the step. Henriette’s slim form looked as girlish as of old. On her meek and placid face alone was the stamp of her maternity visible; and even in this, which time would surely hammer into a replica of her life-worn mother’s, the blue eyes could still flash with pleasure, the pupils darken and dilate.

That was a hot summer. Day for day, the sun beat on the hard-baked ground. At five o’clock of an afternoon, stone steps were still too hot to be touched by the bare hand. The roads that led countrywards from the several gates of the city were inches deep in a dust that powdered white, trees, vehicles and people.

With the dusk, the river vanished beneath a pall of white mist; mists hung over the woody swamps at its edge. Above these danced, in millions, the giant Rhine-mosquitoes. At nightfall they raided the town, where those sweating inhabitants, whom experience had not rendered artful, became their prey. In Peterle’s home no extraordinary care was exercised; and the babe’s bald head, his soft face and hands, were soon a mass of sores.

Still, the young life made headway: the blue eyes learnt to turn corners, to follow people about the room, to linger with approval on the mother form. Then, however, a week broke that was big with consequence for every one.

Now, it was midsummer: the tubbed oleanders, everywhere set out, were masses of intolerable red sweetness. In the town park, the green knobs that dotted the orange-trees were turning yellow; the hanging-gardens on roofs and balconies shrivelled for want of water, or ran wild. Dwelling-houses were deserted, given over to easygoing caretakers. The German residents had fled, exasperated: even the sun-loving Alsatian, rejoiced though he was by their absence, thought it time to make a move: and were it only to a hired cottage outside the walls of the town. Here might be seen little black-eyed boys in barred stockings and without coats; here were dolly little girls, and thin, natty women in black, or masterful, high-bosomed business women, who had come out from the counting-house of some MAGASIN DE COMMERCE, some EPICERIE or PATISSERIE, to sit about in overgrown vegetable-gardens, and inhale the rarer air. The inhabitants of the most ancient quarters — the BUNGAVERTS, or KLEIN FRANKREICH— frequented the pavement-cafes, and made excursions of a Sunday.

About this time Peterle’s mother went out to dance. It was not quite a novelty: more than once of late Henriette had rebelled against the confinement of the long, sultry evenings, and Peterle had wept for her ministrations in vain. But now came a certain Sunday when even the blindest might have seen that something was in the wind. Henriette, having gone about all the morning in petticoat and bed-jacket, began to prepare herself festally directly the midday-meal was over. Taking off her bodice, and exposing her grey cotton corset, above which showed the unbleached linen of her shift, she let down her black hair and combed it. Like that of most aspiring merry-makers, her temper was none of the best; she grew short even with Willi, when he clung to her skirts and hindered her: she shook and slapped him: and both babies piped in unison. Her arms and neck lathered and dried, she drew on her best blouse and laid her shawl in readiness, moving about the room in her stocking-soles; for the new pointed shoes, which she had just freed from tissue-paper, were tight, and she spared herself their nips and pinches till the last. Meanwhile her stepfather went in and out, in a white dickey and a black suit, of which only the coat had still to be donned: this hung brushed and folded over a chair. At three o’clock the pair set off. Henriette was very cross indeed when it came. to leaving the children, and many were the reproaches heaped on the absent grandmother’s head. For Grandmother, after promising to stay at home and mind them, had, in the end, let herself be seduced by a wedding engagement; and, since none of the three adults was willing to forgo a pleasure: skat, a wedding, and the dance respectively: there was nothing for it but to shut the door on the little ones, and trust to luck that they would come to no harm.

But the six-year-old Gustave was also bent on holiday-making; and having watched his elders turn the corner, he straightway reached for the milk, being resolved to get the nourishing of the infants, with which he had been entrusted, over once and for all. In this, he was unlucky enough to upset the jug: he fled the consequences, and played truant in the streets till evening. As feeding-time drew near, Peterle and Willi became as restless as caged animals in a Zoo; but their protests went unheard: and finally Peterle, a baffled, empty, outraged babe, cried himself to sleep, and slept till he was wakened by his grandmother’s hands.

To her cares ensued a period of sated repose. Then again he was disturbed.

It was the middle of the night. High, angry voices, broken by sobs, filled the room. The grandmother it was who wept; Henriette, like a statue come to life, was talking, talking, in a passionate, threatening way. Her stepfather sat at the table, his head between his hands, sullen and malignant; a kitchen lamp, backed by a round tin radiator, shed its blinding glare on his eyes, heavy with wine. When Peterle woke and cried, Henriette snatched him from his bed and cuddled him to her. The mother-arms soothed his wailing; and over his head the bandying of taunts and accusations went on, punctuated by the grandmother’s lament of: “Ah! it’s me that ought to go. Yes, if I were out of the way!”

Henriette’s black brows drooped over her wrathful blue eyes, which glowered at her stepfather. “Mother had two when you took her!”

“Two . . . yes!”

“What! You’d throw this up at me, would you?”— and she jerked Peterle forward.

He pshawed. “But here you’d be off down over the Alps with this blackamoor!”

“Blackamoor yourself! He’s willing to marry me.”

“And you’d go? . . . leave us all? . . . never come back? Henriette! MADELE!”

He pleaded with her, in a low voice, talking volubly. And Henriette let herself be moved; she ceased to be angry, lost her readiness of tongue, and drooped her head till it touched the head of the child, fallen into a light sleep on her heart.

Suddenly the relative calm was broken by a rude hubbub without. This proved to be the vegetable-hawker who lived in the attic: he was mounting the stairs, plainly neither sober nor alone. An indignant family met him on the landing and barred his way, Grandmother even coming out of her bed, to which she had retired; and the candle she held aloft illumined her wispy grey hair, her night-costume of jacket and shift, her thin naked legs. All three were justly irate: theirs was a respectable and orderly house, and no WACKES should carry on in it with promiscuous FRAUENZIMMER, if they could help it! The hawker, too drunk to argue, leaned against the wall and stuttered irrelevancies. But the good-looking piece his companion was only mildly tipsy, and did not shrink from parley. The rough dialect flew. At length she was got downstairs and locked out into the street, where her abuse died away; and the other inhabitants, who had been peeping curiously from their doors, closed them and withdrew. The hawker was half cajoled, half bullied up the third flight to his attic; after which two nervous women, one with a fretful babe at her breast, sat in the dark on the bottom stair, till the drunkard’s light went out, and snores told of his physical collapse.

In the further course of that night Henriette, having unwisely drunk a glass of beer after eating stone fruit, was taken very unwell. Time and again she started up from feverish dreams, in which the dapper Italian, his languishing eyes, his milk-white teeth and coal-black moustachios played the leading part — was wakened by spasms of knifelike pain.

Next morning she was limp and distracted; and hasty-handed with two peevish little children. She had a hard day’s work before her, too. In addition to her ordinary job, the main item of which was “doing” the room of the second lodger, who, a late sleeper, rose at the last possible moment, threw on her clothing and fled for the shop in which she was employed, carrying her BRIOCHE half-eaten in her hand, and leaving everything, even to the freeing of her comb from its fluff of dead hair, to Henriette: in addition to this, which always took a considerable time, to-day was the day on which the big front room had to be turned out and set in order.

For twenty-nine or thirty days in the month, the family had free use of this room: and they availed themselves of it, with due respect for its contents. For here were gathered the handsomest strip of carpet, a console-pedestal and mirror, a suite of furniture, an embroidered table cover, bunches of dried grasses and artificial flowers. The room had two large windows, flanked by scarlet geraniums, which blossomed furiously in the fierce sun; and the bed stood in a curtained alcove. The tenant, an elegant and formidable Councillor of justice, “in the best years,” paid them rent to the amount of twenty marks a month. — In person he was tall, dark and colourless; and wore a shiny black pointed beard, gold spectacles, buttoned patent-leather boots, and lemon-coloured kid gloves.

So, throughout the morning, Henriette swept and scrubbed and polished, sometimes heaving a sigh, sometimes rebuking her children, but for the most part silent as a songless bird.

After dinner, when Gustave had gone back to, school, when everything was clean and shining, and she herself washed and dressed, she lingered by the flower-box to snip off the withered leaves from the overgrown geraniums. The window in the mansard opposite was open, and the man who was dying of consumption behind it had pushed a sickly indiarubber-plant out into the guttering. No sun fell on that side of the street, and the plant looked as unwholesome as himself. On seeing Henriette, he pulled his blue lips back over his gums, in what was meant to be a smile, and addressed her in the stringy voice that made her think of a cracked guitar.

“You look pale to-day.”

Henriette heard the malice in his tone — the satisfaction with which he verified the decrease of colour in another’s cheeks — and the attitude of defiance she instinctively assumed was that of the living towards the dead.

She nodded vengefully.

“I was dancing last night.”

“In this heat? I thank God it wasn’t me!”

“And now I’m going out.”

“Why not? I— I, too, shall go out next week!” he gave back, devoured by hatred, well knowing that he would never set foot in the sunlit streets again.

Henriette turned contemptuously away. The liar! . . . thinking he could befool a person like that. — And she made a great show, knowing he watched her, of pinning on her neckerchief and dressing the children.

The idea of going out had been invented only to annoy him. Now, however, she asked herself why not. Why should she not take the afternoon off, and join father for the VIEREBROT, at his work on the banks of the Little Rhine?

With the aid of a neighbour she got the perambulator down the stairs, and laid Peterle in it. At his feet she put his bottle, a cake for Willi, and a surprise for Father in the shape of a big white beer-radish. Above this came the feather-bed, and on top of all perched Willi, his legs dangling over the side of the carriage.

Henriette pushed this load through the summer streets, in bent and muscle-less fashion. While in the crowded inner town, she walked mainly in the middle of the roadway; for in places the footpath was not much more than a glorified doorstep. But having crossed a bridge, she came into the modern quarter, where the streets were wide, and tree-lined. Arrived at the east gate, she followed a narrow canal that linked the two rivers. High poplars edged the path: she rested for a time on a shady seat. Barges, so heavily laden that their rims were level with the water, moved forward inch by inch; women sat at their helms and steered, or dandled infants, or hung out washing; their little chimneys smoked, noisy dogs raced yapping from stern to prow. These barges were towed by men, three abreast, yoked like oxen and bronzed to blackness, who crawled laboriously along the towing-path, head and neck bent, eyes fixed on the ground. Beyond the canal was a sprinkling of old French villas, painted in delicate pinks and lavender-greys, one and all furnished with heavy green shutters, and surrounded by damp, overgrown gardens. Stiff rows of poplars led up to them. On some steps that ran down to the water, washer-women were at work: they knelt and scrubbed garments with brushes on the wooden steps. Now and then one of them would sit back on her haunches, and hold up for scrutiny some gaudy red or blue rag; after which, bending forward, she plunged it afresh into the water. The swing-bridge was in motion when Henriette got to it, and she made one of a group that watched, with idle interest, a bigger barge than usual glide through. Crossing it, she shuffled through the dust of the road. The bicycles that dashed to and fro left long, slowly subsiding trails, as of smoke, in their wake. By a weir stood the last little inn, in the garden of which workmen and bargemen sat at VESPERBROT. But Henriette went further, went round the corner and out among the sandbank cones, where she found her stepfather smoking in sight of his work — the repairing of the stone embankment that protected the low-lying, wooded ground from the inroads of the swift and shifty Rhine.

Here they ate their meal. Not many words passed between them. Willi had to be kept from under the wheels of the bicycles that spun along to the end of the parapet: had to be dabbed with spittle for the relief of gnat and mosquito bites. Peterle gave trouble, too. For the first time in his life, after lustily crying for food, he refused his bottle, averting his head when it was offered to him, pushing the mouthpiece away with protruded lips. Henriette felt the milk anxiously: it was still warm, as how could it fail to be, considering it had been sat on by Willi, and used as a foot-warmer by the babe himself? She tried it, but could taste nothing wrong; so, following her stepfather’s advice, she dropped in several lumps of sugar, begged from the inn. Having shaken the bottle till these dissolved, she forced the teat between Peterle’s lips; and now he drank, though not with his usual gusto.

Until both children slept, she caused the carriage to move gently to and fro. Then, she felt herself nudged.

“Look here, my girl, would you like a new neckerchief?”

She shook her head. “I’ve got one.”

“Aye, but a handsomer than that?”

“NE, it’s good enough.”

“One with roses on it.”

“Roses?” Her eyes ceased their straying; the pupils grew.

“Aye, great roses, and forget-me-nots, and madonna lilies! On a yellow ground.”

“Lilies? Where ‘ud you get it from?”

“Where d’you think? MADELE, SCHAU HER!” and from an inner pocket the man drew forth a slim packet, folded in tissue paper. Opening it, he disclosed the lovely cloth.

Henriette gasped.

“Makes you open your eyes, lass, what? Put it on!”

Dazzled, Henriette removed her own drab little cape, and laid the new finery round her shoulders. Her eye hung reverently on the silky texture; her fingers followed it. “How pretty! . . . oh, how pretty!”

“What did I tell you?” He spat, well content. “Cost me the inside of a five-mark piece. And now just you remember it was me that bought it — me, MADELE . . . for you!”

Long after her stepfather had gone back to work, she sat with it still about her; and more than one of his fellow-workmen sent a glance at the girl in her grandeur, which set off, by vivid contrast, her raven black hair, lake-blue eyes, and pale, oval face.

Then, however, suddenly waking from her reverie, she saw that a great army of storm clouds had come up and was resting on the mountains, which in their turn had drawn perceptibly nearer. Hastily removing the neck-cloth and tucking it into the perambulator, she straightened out her children and pushed off on her homeward journey. It was none too soon: as she entered the house the first raindrops fell, the size of florins, and simultaneously came a loud clap of thunder.

Not many minutes later a messenger handed in the fruit, flowers and sweet-meats which the JUSTIZRAT never failed to provide; and, shortly after, Mamsell Mimi herself arrived in person to decorate and arrange.

These were gala evenings. Grandmother left her job early; Father came straight home from work. For they all adored Mamsell Mimi, who, when she had finished what she came to do, usually stayed for supper with the family, bringing lollipops to the children, and to their elders a goodly supply of piquant gossip. For Mamsell Mimi knew life; she had also frank and cynical opinions about it, and a sprightly, over-charged tongue. She was a big, handsome woman, with golden hair, and a figure that swept in and out in astonishing curves — like those of the letter S. In observing her, the wonder grew that it was possible exactly to control such a surplusage of flesh. And indeed, after she had eaten, and was sitting at ease on the sofa, she herself offered scant apology for loosening both bodice and corset.

“Or I shall explode with the heat, good people! . . . go off pop, like a child’s balloon. Heavens! The struggle it is to keep one’s figure!”

For figure was the SINE QUA NON of her profession — that of BUFFLETDAME in a popular restaurant — and the wasp waist and monstrous billowing of the bosom were as necessary to success in it as a good head for arithmetic and a pretty wit. She looked longingly forward, she told them — between ear-splitting crashes of thunder — to the day when, casting constraint and care for appearance behind her, she would be able to live wholly in NEGLIGEE. That would come to pass when she retired from business and settled down, it might be with a good, complaisant husband, it might also be without. For herself, she would prefer to be free. Men were too great a nuisance; one had always to be dancing to their tune. Now in a village not far over the borders of Baden she had an old motherkin, and there, too, lived her heart’s darling, her little cabbage, her P’TIT TONERL, a strapping youngster some five years old; and, if she pleased herself, she would take up her abode with these two, and never again have to do with anything more troublesome than pigs or hens. Of course, though, that would not be for many a year yet; and Mamsell Mimi heaved a great boom of a sigh that resembled a soundless laugh; then drew a rapid sketch of herself in the faded years, and laughed in earnest. Well, well! when the day did come, she would at least be able to drink her fill of beer. Now, if they would believe her, she was prohibited a drop. Oh! she did not want to say a word against a certain person: he was very generous to her, and in every respect EIN ANSTANDIGER MENSCH; but they would not misunderstand her if she called him exacting. Only two months ago it had almost come to a rupture between them; he had accused her of letting herself go, of growing fat, of enjoying her MUNCHENER on the sly: and — would they believe it? — next time he had actually brought a yard-measure in his pocket, to see if his suspicions were justified. Fortunately, she had been able to persuade him that the extra inch was due to a bulkier petticoat; but it had given her, all the same, a shock, and the very next day she had purchased new corsets, of the rigour of iron — yes, truly! an iron bandage, in which she had ever since been encased. Except at night: that she could not bring herself to. Some did, who were more ambitious than she; but she — ACH HERRJE! — she loved her ease too well. One night she had made the effort, and in the morning had been obliged, on rising, to part with the cheese and cucumber of which she had partaken for supper. Such a thing had never happened to her before. No, there was no doubt the skinny and bony — though she did not envy them! — had the best of it. It was simple enough for THEM to imitate nature; and here followed several merry tales of the ruses “the scrags” resorted to. But even they ran a constant risk — that of discovery. ACH, DU MEIN GOTTELE! women truly did not have an easy time of it in this difficult world.

Thus talked Mamsell Mimi; and, of her three hearers, the smoking man smiled cynically and nodded, while the two pale, pack-horse women drank in, open-mouthed, their guest’s gay wisdom. All the time she talked, she dandled Peterle, who was restless and would not sleep: it was the thunder had unsettled his stomach, said Grandmother, and gave him her horny, work-seamed finger to suck. Mamsell Mimi adored children: her dream would have been, she vowed, to have a dozen of them round her, one always small enough to fill her arms. But GOTT BEWAHRE! such joys were not for the like of her: her single one, her Tonikin, had added a whole stone to her weight. Love them, though, that she could! — and she hugged Peterle to her great bosom, which — NICHT WAHR, MEINE LIEBEN? — they would have judged able to nourish the dozen of which she dreamed; whereas, if they could credit it, for her treasure, her well-beloved little cock-chafer, it had yielded not so much as a mouthful. And so she fondled Peterle, drawing him to her, then holding him away again to look at him, many times in succession, always with loud smacks of kisses in between. — In the course of which Peterle hiccupped, and was very sick.

He was sick again after Mamsell Mimi’s great deep laugh had died away on the stairs, leaving its echo on the different floors, and a pleased content in the hearts of all who heard it that something so big and handsome and jolly as this woman should exist. He was sick also several times later on; Henriette was in and out of bed with him during the night. And next day the sickness continued; he could not keep his milk down, and, unless she paced the floor with him, cried unceasingly. She hardly dared to let him out of her arms, for fear his wailing might disturb the inmates of the front room. In the afternoon, as other violent symptoms set in, and he had twice turned from milk altogether and was tossing as if in pain, she bore him to a wise woman who lived in the neighbourhood.

This person who, in the intervals of her profession as midwife, carried on a kind of surreptitious practice, poohpoohed Henriette’s fears. It was merely an attack of indigestion: a “spoilt stomach.” She prescribed doses of camomile-tea; but, more especially, cognac.

“A dash in each bottle, FRAULEIN— that’s all that’s needed. He’ll take to it, you see, like a cat to fish.”

But this was not the case: Peterle continued to avert his face when his bottle was presented to him, to wail, and to slobber a watery fluid. Next morning, as he looked pinched about mouth and nose, and did not seem able to wake up properly, his mother put him in the perambulator and wheeled him through the sunshine to a free dispensary for children, in the new quarter of the town: among the stratum of the population to which Henriette belonged, they were held to know “double as much about children” as at the real hospitals.

After waiting half an hour she was called into a room built wholly of white tiles. The doctor was in a white overall, flanked by a Sister, also in stiff, white starch. Henriette felt that she and Peterle, well washed as their garments were, formed drab blots on the snowiness of the room. Otherwise the doctor, a youngish man, gave principally an impression of squareness: his yellow beard was cut square, as was also his brushlike hair; he had a square forehead, and large square hands. But he was not ungentle, and had, besides, the shortsighted man’s ingratiating habit of pushing up his glasses while he talked, and smoothing out a tired eye with a band three fingers broad. He examined Peterle — far too cursorily to please Henriette — touched him here and there with a big white forefinger, and looked inside his mouth.

Her lengthy explanations were cut short. “You’ve been careless.”

This charge she could honestly rebut.

“Haven’t troubled to boil the milk, eh?”

Henriette denied this, but less surely; she remembered how, on the afternoon excursion, she had been in a hurry to set off, and had thought the milk would “do”— was hot enough, the day being so hot — without waiting for it to spin and bubble.

The doctor made an entry in his notebook. “Well, leave him here. We’ll see what we can do for him.”

But at this Henriette hugged Peterle to her. “I’d rather look after him myself.”

“At your own risk then!”

She nodded.

The doctor shrugged his shoulders: he had no time to argue and persuade; other mothers hushed sickly wailings in the outer room. So, giving her some instructions, he bade her come back with the child next day. But as she disappeared he could not refrain from saying hotly to the Sister at his side: “You women are not fit even to look after your own children. They should be taken from you at birth.”— At which the woman who, being young, and radiant with health, thought him the most wonderful man in the world, merely smiled.

Henriette did not return: a wild fear gripped her lest they should have some power policeman-like to wrest Peterle from her. As, however, next morning the babe was perceptibly worse, she carried him to one of the hospitals. Here, the doctor was less gentle. He turned back Peterle’s eyelid as carelessly as though it had been a dead leaf, and said gruffly: “Why come here only when the child is dying?” Still, he gave her the medicine she had been counting on: you could always reckon on getting that at a proper hospital: and the very size of the bottle, and the redness of the fluid it contained, reassured her for the time being.

Next day, in despair, she fetched the wise woman. But now the latter, too, only shrugged her shoulders, attributing the change for the worse in Peterle’s condition to want of faith in her treatment.

“Take my advice, FRAULEIN, and stick to milk. Children don’t never thrive on them barley messes.”

But Peterle’s day for milk was over. Inserted now dropwise between his lips, it dribbled idly out again. He could not swallow: his little mouth and throat were a bed of ulcers. All through the long, hot afternoon, Henriette, unconscious of fatigue, paced the floor with him, his head, hardly strewn yet with a light down, lolling helplessly from side to side. And whenever she turned at the door, to make the length of the narrow room again, she saw fixed on her, at the opposite window, the glittering eye of the living skeleton behind it — an eye alight with malignant pleasure that it was no longer he only, who was to be called on to leave daylight and the sun.

Towards evening her strength gave out: she laid the babe back in the perambulator. Here, beneath a square of mosquito-netting, the mountain of feather-bed sloping steeply up over him, Peterle, alone and unaided, fought his tiny, blind, unknowing way towards the great dark . . . .

The MADAME for whom Henriette had worked before her confinement, hearing of his plight, came to see him. She, being tender-hearted, could not listen unmoved to his puny moans, and shed tears of pity as, lifting the net, she peered down at the waste bit of humanity beneath it.

“Give him air. Take off the feather-bed,” she pleaded. But Henriette shook her head: Peterle had had his comforts while he was well; they should not be withdrawn from him now.

Towards evening his moans grew fainter, his little feet turned cold. And just as dusk was settling definitely into night, he heaved a sigh and died.

Henriette went out at once to fetch a doctor; and a young man in the neighbourhood, who had a small, working-class practice, was found to certify that Peterle Luthy, a male, of the Protestant religion, aged four and a half months, had just, by reason of infant cholera, ceased to breathe. As it was late, and his work over for the day, the doctor was in no hurry to be gone. He sat and enjoyed with Father a glass of red wine and a slice of bilberry-tart, over which, having discovered in each other “good SOZIS,” they cracked the obligatory jokes concerning “Siegfried Meyer’s” latest dodge with regard to Morocco.

Next morning there was much to be done. Father set off earlier than usual for work, that he might register the decease by the way. Grandmother stayed at home from her job, without even troubling to send word of her intention, “a death in the family” being a fact of sufficient importance to allow a break with precedent. Henriette walked to the cemetery, to arrange about the grave; and, on her road there, ordered the coffin. This was to be made by a joiner who lived a few doors down the street, and was promised for that evening; for, in such hot weather, and considering the nature of the illness . . . .

All day Peterle lay in state on the top of a chest of drawers. He had several visitors — an ugly, shrivelled little yellow doll, in a dress fantastically bunched up with blue ribbons. Two real wax candles burnt at his head and feet. These were a present from Mamsell Mimi, and had been brought by special messenger. There was also a magnificent wreath of painted tin immortelles. The kind-hearted MADAME, on the news being carried to her, had given Henriette three marks for a wreath. The latter chose, not living flowers, which would be dead by the morning, but this solid and enduring symbol, which would last for weeks, even months, to come; which would still be there, still existent, when all that remained of little Peterle had become a thing unspeakable, from which thought shrank away . . . .

His coffin, a small deal box, painted a light and vivid green, was a misfit balcony flower-box, which the joiner seized this opportunity to get rid of.

“For such a little man as him one must have something bright and cheerful,” he said chattily, while he inserted the body. Adding piously, as he noted Henriette’s downcast air: “And give thanks, FRAULEIN, that it has pleased the Lord to put an end to his pain.”

Next morning the perambulator, with the green box inside it, was carried down the stairs once more. There was no need to-day for the feather-bed. Henriette spread a shawl across the foot-end of the box, and upon this perched Willi, his legs dangling over the side of the carriage.

The cemetery was a long way off — was out beyond the octroi-house and the city walls. The dusty road wound slightly uphill, and Henriette had to exert all her strength. In the vicinity of a barracks she passed many idle, lolling soldiers, and heard expressions of curiosity about the contents of her box, only one or two catching sight of the wreath and baring their heads. At the grave there was no time for ceremony: Peterle was lowered and covered over almost before you could count twenty, Henriette’s chief concern being to prevent Willi from falling in and getting buried, too. The mound raised, she laid the tin wreath on it: by this she would know in future where Peterle lay.

Her load was lighter now. But now, too, for the first time, she felt how tired she was. And on the way home, Willi having fallen asleep, she sat down at the table of a pavement-cafe to drink a glass of beer. Her arms felt, and no doubt for a day or two would feel, strangely empty. Still, it was better so. Two were enough, more than enough. And she would take care — oh! such care . . . .

Her thoughts swam to a mist. She fell into a doze as she sat, under the stainless violet-blue of the summer sky. Then, however, waking with a start, she sprang to her feet with a guilty sense of work undone; and laying the money for the beer on the table, pushed with fresh zeal for home.

And before the sun went down that night, it was almost as though Peterle had never been.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52tt/chapter1.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33